Fifty Weeks Running

John Self    Drakkar Press

Fifty Weeks Running is a sort of on-line diary reflecting on running (and other things) based on experiences of running around the region and elsewhere for thirty years, on and off.

A pdf version of Fifty Weeks Running was placed on-line in 2011 but is being replaced by this html version (which I will add to, chapter-by-chapter, when I have the time).

Note for late-comers to this document: It was created and put on the web, week-by-week, through 2011. As promised in ‘the run-up’, I resisted the temptation to go back and tamper with any of the weekly entries, except to correct slips.

Contents

old salt road   The Run-Up
  1.      Take Up the Running
  2.      Running Commentary
  3.      Hitting the Ground Running
  4.      Do a Runner
  5.      Running Like Clockwork
  6.      The School Run
  7.      Running Down the Clock
  8.      Run Amuck
  9.      Should Find A Running Banquet Ere They Rested
  10.    In the Long Run
  11.    Runner-Up
  12.    Run Short
  13.    Running It Fine
  14.    Sorry, I’ve Got To Run
  15.    Home Run
  16.    Out Run
  17.    Running Rife
  18.    Running Gear
  19.    On the Run
  20.    Can I Just Run Over That Again?
  21.    Running the Gauntlet
  22.    A Run For Your Money
  23.    It’s Running A Little Funny
  24.    Running Sore
  25.    Run the Good Race
  26.    Run For Your Life
  27.    Running Away From Home
  28.    Running Away From Home (continued)
  29.    Running Away From Home (continued)
  30.    Having A Clear Run At It
  31.    System Failure, Run Recovery
  32.    A Close-Run Thing
  33.    Drug Running
  34.    Running on Empty
  35.    Run To A Standstill
  36.    Running Sacred
  37.    Up and Running
  38.    Giving Me the Run Around
  39.    Runs in the Family
  40.    The Running of the Bulls
  41.    I’d Run a Mile
  42.    Run Across
  43.    Run to Seed
  44.    Run Aground
  45.    Running a Risk
  46.    Run Your Eyes Over These
  47.    Don’t Run Away With the Idea
  48.    Running Wild
  49.    Running a Book On
  50.    Running Out of Time

The Run-Up

Why? Why do we ask ‘Why?’? Arctic terns fly over 40,000 miles a year; the Dracunculus vulgaris plant smells of rotting flesh; North American cicadas have a life cycle of 13 or 17 years. But they do not ask ‘Why?’. We ask ‘Why?’ of them.
      We also ask ‘Why?’ of each other, if we come across some apparently strange behaviour: Why does he wear a bow-tie every day? Why does she sing arias while gardening? Why does he collect Bulgarian stamps? If we feel bold, we might even ask the person directly. Rather more puzzlingly, we also ask ‘Why?’ of ourselves. Why do I continue to support Norwich City Football Club, despite decades of little achievement (that is, the football club, not me)? You would think that, if someone did something of their own volition, they would know why they did so.
      Nobody asks me why I run every day (well, almost every day ... well, ok, some days). But I ask myself, in a subconscious way, every time I reach for the running shoes. After all, there must be a reason why, at my age (65), I reduce myself to sweaty exhaustion.
      I have read quite a bit about running but I have read very little that relates to the way that I feel about running. I may not know why I run but I don’t think that it is really for any of the reasons that I read about. Maybe my reasons will become clearer as a result of writing this diary. If so, they will only be my reasons. I have no idea if they’ll be anybody else’s.
      One thing that I do know about running is that no runners run all day, every day. Even for the most fanatical runner, running can occupy only a small fraction of a runner’s time. For the large majority of runners, their non-running activities are much more important than their running. The answer to my conundrum lies, perhaps, in the relationship between running and the rest of life. We shall see, perhaps.
      I plan to write a thousand words or so each week about my running, with no doubt a few detours and perhaps hiatuses along the way, as there are with my running. In the past I have always found it better to write an introduction such as this after I have written what needs to be introduced (I have a slightly better idea what it’s about by then). A draft introduction is useful as a guide but I expected to throw it away later. That won’t do for a diary. It is against the spirit of a diary to come back and change the entries later. So, whatever thoughts are expressed one week will stay expressed forever.
      To write at all one needs to have some image in mind of the potential reader. I don’t know who, if anyone, will actually read these words other than me, perhaps, in twenty years’ time. Perhaps they will be of interest to someone who runs or who thinks about running or, since running is a ‘metaphor for life’ according to some, to someone who lives or who thinks about living. That about covers it.

1.  Take Up the Running
January 8th 2011

A wise proverb tells us not to run before we can jog (or something like that). Muscles and joints that have been dormant for a while do not take kindly to sudden excessive exertion. Last summer, for example, I did some energetic wheel-barrowing for the first time for years and for a month afterwards my arms wouldn’t let me pick up a cup or turn a door handle without complaining.
      This problem gets worse over the years. In our younger days our bodies forgive us after a day or two but I have learned to treat mine gently nowadays. I don’t suddenly surprise it; I creep up on it carefully. I do very little at first, and then a tiny bit more, and then a bit more, and eventually, before the muscles have noticed, I have them performing prodigious feats of strength and endurance (I can but wish).
      So I have this week restrained my natural enthusiasm. Like everyone, I can’t wait to put my New Year’s resolutions into action but my commitment to get back to running needs to be delicately nurtured. In this first week of the year, I have run a steady 14 miles in four short runs (to the Waterworks Bridge, around the bridleway, up to the little bridge over Tarn Beck, and to the fishermen’s hut).

lune valley Right: Part of my running arena: Brookhouse, Caton, Halton and the Lune valley from Quarry Road. A standard short run is from Brookhouse to the Waterworks Bridge visible to the right. Quarry Road is the road up to the windmills, to which I usually run across fields rather than up the road (when I am fit enough).

      I don’t know what anyone reading this epistle will think of 14 miles, and so I probably need to put it into perspective. A couple of years ago I started running again after not running for a few years. Last year, for the first time, I kept a record of how much I ran. I am sure that you would like me to share it with you. According to my spreadsheet, which is a stickler for precision, I ran 813 miles in 6488 minutes on 167 days of the year. That is an average of 16 miles a week (or about 20 miles a week if you ignore those weeks when I didn’t run at all). You may think that is good or bad or, more likely, ‘so what?’. I am just reporting the fact so that you know where I am starting from.
      Over the Christmas period I didn’t run at all. It is a time for the family, not to run away from the family. Ruth and Martin and Pamela and partners, plus other relatives and friends, have a break from their commitments, so I should have a break from running. However, we are not entirely idle. Most days there is a walk of some sort, sometimes up a mountain.
      Knowing that I wouldn’t run for the two weeks around Christmas it seemed pointless to run for the two weeks before, especially as we had early snow and ice. Extrapolating this argument, I would never have run at all last year, but I did, as I have just said. Nevertheless, these first runs of January have been much like starting afresh.
      Even when, decades ago, I used to run ‘seriously’ (and I realise that I am going to have to say something about my serious running later, as it’s all part of the reason why I am trying to run now) I never ran much in December. It was always a struggle getting going again in January. And yet an enjoyable struggle, for the process of gradually getting fitter is more satisfying, in a way, than actually being fit.
      And so, I am on my way. I have put 14 miles on the clock. I will do my best to put on a few more during the year, and also to add more words to this diary. But if I should not run for a day or a week or a month, either through injury, illness or idleness, then so be it. That is what running is like for me nowadays.
      Re-starting running is not the same as starting running. The metaphysical question of why I continue to try to run is deeper than the question of why I started running. I have an answer to the latter question, if not the former (although, funnily enough, I suspect it is almost the opposite).
      In 1977 I took up a new job at Lancaster University, a green-field campus. Well, the campus was a green field until they built on it but it remained surrounded by fields that were still green. For months, I was perplexed about what staff did during the lunch period. There were eight bars on campus but nothing like a ‘senior common room’, which most universities have in order for staff to eat, drink and chat. The intention, perhaps, was to encourage staff and students to mingle. I didn’t see much mingling. Some staff brought sandwiches to eat in their offices, perhaps with colleagues. Others escaped to those green fields. They would grab their sports bag, walk to the gym, and be on the fields within a few minutes.
      I sometimes saw these strange people as I drove around the university - bronzed (or weather-beaten) Olympians pounding along the lanes, arms like pistons and with a glazed look in their eyes. I then noticed the seedy complexions of those with whom I was eating sandwiches. I became increasingly depressed by conversations invariably about the problems of life, the university, and everything. Gradually I developed the thought that I’d rather join those out in the sunshine (or rain or wind or snow, as the case may be).
      But not at first. I couldn’t expect to breeze into the gym along with proper athletes. It would be too embarrassing when they powered away. First, I thought, I should get my body used to running and, in the absence of any better idea, I decided to run home. Home was about seven miles away. I hadn’t done anything sporty since I gave up playing football about ten years before. But I didn’t lead an unhealthy life and the family and the job kept me active enough. I wasn’t in a hurry. Surely, I thought, anyone reasonably fit can jog a few miles. Well, they can, but, notwithstanding my comments about muscle recovery above, not if they want to run again in the following week.
      I took things more gradually. Eventually, I got into the habit of, at 1 o’clock, joining the exodus to the gym, and then running out, sometimes with others but more often alone, as I didn’t wish to detain them. By December 1978 I was prepared to be persuaded to join the Stepping Stones race, the annual staff versus students race of about three miles, a loop over the eponymous stepping stones. It was, thankfully, not an altogether serious affair, partly because the students always won. I came half-way, 26th out of 52.
      I began then, in 1978, to be accepted as a member of a running group. Today, however, I always run alone. While I would never have started running in 1978 without the group to join, today all my motivation, such as it is, comes from within. We’ll see where it leads me in 2011.

2.  Running Commentary
January 15th 2011

Last week I reflected on why I started running but I did not say anything about why I’ve started this diary. To be straightforward about it, it’s a direct result of reading two books on running that I was given last year - books written by Haruki Murakami1 [1] and Christopher McDougall [2].
      No doubt it was meant well. I imagine that it was thought that the books would inspire me in my efforts to run again. Unfortunately, I found almost nothing in them that corresponded to my own feelings about running, either now or as I remember them from long ago. This diary is an attempt to draw out those feelings so that I am better aware of them. I have no idea if they will be more typical of the ordinary runner than those of Murakami and McDougall.
      Maybe it’s a cultural thing. I could not relate to the evangelical obsession of the Japanese and American authors. There is, of course, a paradox here. Anyone who sets out to write about running is bound, you would think, to be somewhat obsessed by running.
      I fear that it will be difficult for me to convey, through my half-hearted commitment to write a thousand words or so a week about the topic, that I am only half-heartedly committed to running. It is quite likely that at times during the year I will lapse from one or both. That’s the way it is and should be. I am not a robot.
      Actually, the word ‘lapse’ that I just used is the wrong one. It implies some failure. It suggests that I have some duty to run and to write and that by not doing so I am being neglectful. That is part of what I am reacting against. When I run it’s because I want to, and when I don’t run it’s because I want not to. That’s all there is to it. Perhaps ‘half-hearted’ is the wrong word, too. Maybe ‘balanced’ or ‘realistic’ is better.
      Murakami’s book explores his thoughts about running, particularly concerning its parallels with his primary occupation, writing novels. He reflects on the role that running has played in his life, with thoughts on the deleterious effect of aging. He shows a long-term commitment to serious running, which is manifest in his determination over 23 years to run at least one marathon a year.
      McDougall develops his ideas about natural running through a search for a tribe with legendary long-distance running prowess that lives hidden in the Mexican canyons. The Tarahumara Indians run extraordinary distances without any of the advantages that modern society is supposed to provide runners. I appreciate that the book is classified as nonfiction but I found that I could only read it as a fantasy novel.
      Both books reach a narrative climax with an exceedingly long run, of 62 miles (100 kilometres) in Murakami’s case and 50 miles over rough country in McDougall’s case. They say that they took 11 hours 34 minutes and over 12 hours, respectively. I believe them. The important thing, as they make clear, is not the time, although they are proud to tell us it, but that they completed the course.

lakes in snow Left: Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man to the Langdale Pikes, across the Lune valley, from near the windmills.

      I do not know what will unfold in the following pages but I think I can safely guarantee that there will be no such climax. I have no targets in mind. Indeed, I think it would be foolish to set any, at my age. I will be content with whatever transpires. I expect that I will return to the thoughts of Murakami and McDougall (and possibly others) but in the meantime I am sure that you are agog to hear about this week’s running.
      The weather has turned mild (wet and windy) after a few very cold weeks but on Tuesday, in the interlude between the two, it was sunny and clear. I ran up the hill in order to see the snow-capped Lake District hills over the Lune valley, before the predicted rain came to wash the snow away. On crystal-clear days like this Black Combe, 30 miles away, seems very close across Morecambe Bay, with the peaks from Coniston Old Man to High Street arrayed to its right. A bonus was the sight, some eighty miles away, of the Isle of Man, which is visible from my hill (Caton Moor) on only a few days of the year.
      On Sunday I ran up to the windmills, in cloud, but on the other days I sheltered from the wind by running in the valley, giving me a total of 18 miles for the week. The natural world seems quiescent at the moment. Nothing much moves down by the river, apart from the flocks of greylag and barnacle geese that gather in the winter, the former in the fields and the latter by and in the river. Otherwise, it is as if nature took such a battering from the record low temperatures of December, with its snow and ice, that it is waiting to be sure that it is safe to venture out. This is no doubt wise, as the ‘real winter’ normally begins about now.
      I am not moving much myself either. My running is intended mainly to gently exercise the legs, to try to ensure that they don’t forget about the concept of running. I am trying not to stress the lungs and upset the breathing channels. I am running as slowly as I can manage. I hardly think of it as running really. It is a sort of down payment, necessary if there is to be any real running later. It is difficult to tell the difference between the beginnings of a muscle strain and the slight soreness that inevitably follows the first runs after a few weeks off running. When one is fit it is easier: any soreness is a strain and needs a rest. At the moment I am proceeding cautiously, expecting (or, at least, hoping) that the soreness will gradually disappear as the muscles toughen up.
      This may seem a rather hesitant start to the year’s running but it is not as hesitant as my starting this diary. I am fearful that the fates will consider themselves tempted and will contrive to limit or even curtail my running altogether, because of my audacity in thinking that I might be able to run and write about running for a whole year.

[1].  Murakami, Haruki (2008), What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, London: Harvill Secker.
[2].  McDougall, Christopher (2009), Born to Run: The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra-Runners, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, New York: Random House.

3.  Hitting the Ground Running
January 22nd 2011

lune flood lune flood 2 Unfortunately, the weather has played its part in limiting my running. It rained all day Saturday and Sunday. The left photograph shows my riverside path to the Waterworks Bridge (the little island is normally on my path, with the river beyond it). The right photograph shows my path to the fishermen’s hut (this is normally a green field, with the river beyond the nearly submerged fence). I later discovered that the footbridge I (used to) cross to reach the hut has been washed away. I doubt that the Angling Club will be in hurry to replace it, as we are outside the fishing season. This is a pity, as the run up-river, now out of commission, is serenely peaceful in winter, when the frisky bullocks of summer are no longer there. I liked to run a little further up the river - to the hut, then to Claughton Beck, then to the River Wenning - as I became fitter.

According to McDougall (p9), “up to eight out of every ten runners are hurt every year”. I am led this week to reflect on that statement for two reasons.
      First, I have eased back a little in my running. I think it wise not to over-stress my calf muscles. This is not fate intervening, as I feared it might last week. Actually, I don’t think I believe in fate. Actions have outcomes, intended or otherwise, but I am sure that the action of writing this diary will not cause problems for my running, through the malign interference of some agent called fate. It was the action of running two days in a row on the road that my calves did not like. The fields were waterlogged but it would have been better to run there.
      I am wondering if I count as one of McDougall’s eight out of ten hurt runners. I wouldn’t say I’m ‘hurt’. I can still run: I managed 15 miles in the week. I am just not running as far or as fast as I would like. If I were in training for the Olympics marathon then it might be more of a concern. Would McDougall consider me ‘hurt’? He believes that running often leads to injuries and that this is mainly because of poorly designed running shoes. If true, this would be a serious matter for millions of runners and for the billion-dollar running shoe industry. We need therefore to know precisely what he means by his statement. He doesn’t say where he plucked his figure from, if not the air, as he gives no references. But it certainly raises many questions in my mind:
  *   If you stopped ten people in the street at random and asked them “Have you been hurt in the last year?”, how many would answer “yes”? That, after all, is all that McDougall is saying about runners.
  *   If his statement is true, is it so astonishing? How many footballers, for example, are hurt every year? If you take a squad of 25 players, as for Premiership teams, and assume that one of them gets hurt every week, in training or in matches, then, on average, 20 players will be hurt in a 40-week season, that is, 8 out of 10. That seems about right: most players miss one or more games through injury during the season.
  *   Isn’t being ‘hurt’ the likely outcome of the macho, masochistic running culture encouraged by many (including McDougall himself), in which, for example, to be a real runner you have to run for twelve hours up and down mountains? The ‘no pain, no gain’ motto is familiar to all runners. It forces those of us not wanting to be thought wimps to run until it hurts, because otherwise there will be no improvement. Of course, some effort is necessary. Soreness and discomfort are normal, but pain means that there is a problem. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to tell the difference.
  *   Why does he say “up to eight”? The figure is presumably less than eight. Two is less than eight but I assume he doesn’t mean two. Later (p170) he says “65% to 80% of runners are injured each year”, again, without references. So, let’s settle for 75%.
  *   Does this 75% apply to all kinds of runner? Is it true for: new runners who perhaps push themselves too hard?; for old runners who just run too much for their own good?; for long-distance runners?; for short-distance runners?; for great runners?; for ordinary runners?; for fast runners?; for slow runners?; for runners who run once a fortnight?; for runners who run twice a day?; for heavy runners?; for light runners?; for male runners?; for female runners? ...
  *   What does he mean by ‘hurt’? Ask any runner if he is fit and he will respond with a list of ailments, sprains and tweaks. This is because runners know that they are often teetering on the brink of their limits. They have to be on the lookout for potential problems (and it helps to have an excuse if running is not as successful as it is hoped). They know that the slightest problem with any part of the body can make running difficult. But they are not really hurt, by normal standards.
  *   If a runner says on one day in the year “I’m a bit stiff from yesterday’s run. I’ll give it a miss today” does that count as ‘hurt’? It sounds more like commonsense to me. If I feel a tweak one day, I’ll have a brisk walk, not run, the next. I don’t consider myself ‘hurt’ but McDougall probably would. But then he probably wouldn’t consider me a runner if I couldn’t put up with a tweak.
  *   Is there any evidence that those who ran a lot in the 1980s (like me) have more leg problems in old age than those who did not? McDougall says (p173) that “the impact on your legs from running can be up to twelve times your body weight”, implying that that cannot fail to do damage. Murakami (p127) says each footstep when you run is “a shock equivalent to three times your weight”. Which is it: twelve or three (perhaps it’s that “up to” again, in “up to twelve”)? Surely, if running were bad for your legs, there would be evidence of infirm elderly ex-runners by now.
      Without answers to all these questions, it is hard to judge the significance of McDougall’s ‘statistic’, although that hasn’t stopped those looking for a pathway to painless running from throwing away their running shoes.
      My second reason for reflecting on McDougall’s statement is that I noticed from last year’s records that on January 24th 2010 I began running again after a few weeks rest to allow a calf strain to recover - and that since that day I have not missed a day’s running because of a leg injury (although I have, of course, given the legs the more-than-occasional day off and I have found many other reasons not to run).
      Last year my three longest breaks from running (apart from a holiday) were (1) after I tripped over a tree root in Aughton Woods and tumbled heavily, hurting my arm, (2) after I fell off a ladder while pruning the Escallonia, hurting my back, and (3) after I slipped on ice, bruising my ribs. Would they count as ‘hurt’ by McDougall? I was certainly hurt - and I was running on two of those occasions, so does that make them running injuries?
      It is impossible to reach general conclusions from one’s personal experience or from anecdotes. For what it’s worth, I have, in over thirty years (on and off), missed only a few days of running because of leg injuries. I have missed fewer days from leg injuries than I have from other injuries and from minor illnesses (colds and coughs). Perhaps I have been lucky. At all events, tomorrow I will celebrate having my legs in running order for a year. I certainly do not take this for granted. I might injure them the day after, who knows?

4.  Do a Runner
January 29th 2011

There was a news item this week about a 73-year-old man who was aiming to run ten marathons in ten days. The report showed him setting off on a training run. My first reaction to his running style was that it lacked style and was hardly running. He shuffled along, feet barely leaving the ground, with no more forward momentum than if he were walking. My second reaction was to realise that this man, though older than me, was aiming to run distances far further than I could contemplate and that if I imagined that my own running style was more athletic than his then I was probably deluding myself.
      Perhaps I need to re-think what being a ‘runner’ means. Murakami and McDougall do not define what they mean by a runner. They just assume that they themselves are runners, on the basis, I suppose, that anyone who runs is, by definition, a runner. I expect that they would agree that anyone who writes is a writer.
      Murakami includes a discussion of the three most important factors in achieving success as a novelist and, by implication, as a runner or anything else. He identifies talent, focus and endurance. Talent is one’s innate ability at whatever it is. Being innate, there is not much one can do to improve it. Focus is the ability to concentrate on the activity, ignoring any distractions. Endurance is the ability to persevere over long periods.
      I have not read any of Murakami’s novels but many people have and he clearly has talent, focus and endurance as a novelist. What about as a runner? He describes himself as an ordinary or mediocre runner. To appreciate fully what Murakami and McDougall tell us about running we should have an idea what sorts of runner they are.
      Usain Bolt runs the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds [1]. Haile Gebrselassie runs the marathon in 2:04 (that is, 2 hours 4 minutes) [2]. Both are undeniably runners. Gebrselassie’s time works out at an average of 17.6 seconds per 100 metres. Or, to put it another way, when Bolt breasts the tape, Gebrselassie would be only 54 metres down the track. The difference, of course, is that while Bolt wheels away, arms aloft, in triumph, Gebrselassie would continue for another 42,141 metres at the same pace.
      Bolt is a sprinter, Gebrselassie is not. How fast would an adult male have to be to reasonably be called a sprinter? Say, ¾ as fast as Bolt? That is, 12.8 seconds for the 100 metres. Then if you run slower than that, you may run 100 metres but you are not really a sprinter.
      McDougall says (p221) that “there are two kinds of great runners: sprinters and marathoners”. So Gebrselassie, who is clearly a great runner, must be a marathoner, although I know he doesn’t just run marathons. Murakami and McDougall’s best times for the marathon are 3:30 and 3:48, respectively. When Gebrselassie reaches his 54 metres, they would be 32 and 29 metres down the track. Murakami and McDougall are not ¾ as fast as Gebrselassie. So, similarly, I don’t think that Murakami and McDougall can reasonably be described as marathoners just because they run marathons. Let’s not beat about the bush: they are too slow to be called marathoners. They have the focus and endurance but not the talent to be called a marathoner.
      That’s fine: after all, McDougall said that a marathoner was a great runner and Murakami considers himself only ordinary and McDougall is still slower. But am I missing the point? The crucial thing is perhaps not the speed at which the marathon is run but the distance (26.2 miles) that is covered. And Murakami and McDougall run even further than marathons. They are ‘ultra-runners’. Perhaps, by running further and further, if slower and slower, they will somehow become great runners in their own right.
      Do they have talent as ultra-runners? Their times for their 62 and 50 mile epics are about twice that of the world records for those distances (worse, then, proportionally, than their marathon times). At their ultra-running speed they would have covered 23 and 18 metres respectively in the time that Bolt has run 100 metres.
      It’s worth pausing to picture that. It’s hardly ‘running’ at all, is it? You could walk it! Roughly speaking, it’s like walking the length of a cricket pitch in 10 seconds. Or, for American readers, walking from the pitcher to the catcher on a baseball field in 10 seconds. That is not my idea of running at all. Just because you can keep plodding along for hour after hour doesn’t make it running, in my eyes. I can’t help feeling that the motion needs to have some zip to it to count as running.

icy lune Right: The fishermen’s hut by the Lune, with Whernside and Ingleborough some 15 miles beyond.

      My point is that Murakami and McDougall are ordinary runners who have done some extra-ordinary running. We, as readers, need to be aware that this influences what they talk about when they talk about running. As for the extra-ordinary running of our 73-year-old friend, I wish him well but whatever I am looking for from my running nowadays it is not to be able to shuffle through ten marathons in ten days.
      I’d much rather run for a few miles by the river. The photograph to the right was taken in December, when the Lune iced over, but this week it has been more benign, dry with sunny spells - sufficiently so, in fact, to lure hundreds of lapwing, curlew and oystercatcher back to flock on the Lune floodplain. These are their first forays of the year as they contemplate their spring migration up the valley to their breeding grounds. The return of the curlew is particularly welcome as the first (perhaps premature) sign that the cold, dark days of winter are over.
      The birds are back but they are strangely quiet. The lapwings fly in dignified ‘clouds’ with none of the erratic diving and turning that characterises their summer displays. The curlews, too, are all but silent, without their distinctive bubbling call so redolent of the high moors in summer.
      I have found a way to run up-river despite the footbridge having been washed away. I run in-land, a little off the public footpath but close enough, I hope, because this is my favourite winter run. On Thursday, for the first time since last March, I ran to Claughton Beck and back, as part of my 24 miles for the week.
      The path by the river is far from any road. Walkers are so rare that the bullocks get over-excited if they see one (even more so, a runner). Thankfully, the bullocks are in the sheds over winter. There is little sound except for the birds, muted as they are. As I run up-river, I have wide views of Whernside and Ingleborough beyond Hornby Castle, with the Caton Moor windmills high on my right. Turning back, I am always impressed by how far I’ve run, when I see Brookhouse far distant on the southern slopes. I am even more impressed if I am able to run back.

[1].  I apologise for all the numbers in this text. Running tends to be about numbers but less so than, say, cricket or baseball.
[2].  Hours and minutes and seconds are separated with a : and . is a decimal point as usual. So 2:04:9.58 means 2 hours 4 minutes 9.58 seconds. 2:04 means 2 hours 4 minutes or 2 minutes 4 seconds depending on the context.

5.  Running Like Clockwork
February 5th 2011

Re-reading last week’s words I realise that I must come out and admit it: I am, or rather was, quite good at running and that is part of the reason that I keep doing it. I hope that doesn’t sound boastful. Whatever talent we have at anything - and ‘quite good’ is nothing special - is given to us. It is something to be grateful for but not proud of.
      It is a weakness of mine that I prefer to do things for which I have a modest competence. This has limited my life experiences considerably. I would rather stay in what is nowadays called the comfort zone rather than make a fool of myself by attempting new activities for which I expect that I have little talent. There is an enormous list of activities that I could embarrass myself at: hang-gliding, camel-racing, playing the flute, yodelling, learning Yiddish, spitting prune stones into cups (I knew someone who was dead good at that: you’d be sitting quietly eating your pudding and, plop, something dropped into your coffee cup from somewhere), ...
      Most people would, in my position, have long ago accepted that they had gained all that they would ever gain from running and would have moved on to explore new experiences. They would say that life is too short to keep on repeating the same old things. Certainly, there are no more ‘personal bests’ (PBs), beloved of runners, to be had at the age of 65. There are, however, PBs aplenty if I were to try completely new activities. I could, for example, time how long it takes me to spit 100 prune stones into a cup.
      But, forgetting all about PBs, I do gain satisfaction from running well, relative to my age, of course. There is, for example, a physical exhilaration to be gained from running at speed down the fields from the windmills. I am just beginning to feel, after a month or so of tentative struggle, that I can push the body on, and, yes, I am sure that the sense of competence does add to my physical and mental well-being.
      My body is better designed for running than it is for, say, weight-lifting or basketball. I am 5 feet 8 (1.73 metres) and 140 pounds (63.5 kilograms). McDougall is 6 feet 4 (1.93 metres) and 230 pounds (104.3 kilograms). I don’t know about Murakami. Running comes relatively naturally to me, although, of course, as I get older, the smoothness of my running has gradually disappeared.
      Nonetheless, the memory of it, and the hope that a vestige of it may return, is part of the reason that I continue to try to run. I run because I enjoy running - that is, the process of running. That may seem self-evident but many people say that they run in order to lose weight, to raise money for charity, to have time to escape from life’s problems, and so on. These, to me, are indirect, secondary benefits. To those for whom they are the main reason, running must seem like a medicine to take for the good it will do.
      Whenever I start trying to run again, as I did on January 1st, I reach a stage, usually after about three weeks, when I begin to doubt that I will ever run comfortably again. I begin to fear that my body is a clapped-out engine that, however tenderly I treat it, just cannot manage any more. The legs seem uncoordinated, the lungs are afire, breathing is laboured, energy is lacking. But I feel that I have, for one more time at least, crossed this threshold. It no longer seems inconceivable that I will run smoothly again.
      As I get fitter, I can extend my range to places that I haven’t run to for a while. It’s like seeing old friends. On Sunday I ran up to the Caton Moor trig point, for the first time since last June. In fact, it was the first time for six months that I have run for an hour, and, a little to my surprise, I felt quite comfortable. It was silent on the moor. No birds were to be seen, but I don’t blame them: it was very cold up there.

near windmills Left: The track down from the Caton Moor trig point past the windmills. (It is supposed to be a bridleway but I have never seen a horse here. I have never seen a runner either, but there is the occasional walker to spoil my solitude.)

      The run up to the trig point is the most straightforward of all my runs. From my doorstep it is uphill every step of the way, apart from two small dips, for an ascent of a bit over 300 metres (1000 feet), and then back down again. It is satisfying to take the challenge head-on and run up non-stop: it gives a sense of mastery over my local hill. I do think of it as ‘my’ hill, as I have, in over 30 years of running there, never seen anyone at my trig point, apart from the one day of the year when they run up from the other side of the moor for the Wray Gala race. I do think of it as ‘my’ trig point, too. Some years ago, the Ordnance Survey said that, as they didn’t need their trig points anymore, volunteers could look after them. I bid for the Caton Moor one. I never heard back from the Ordnance Survey. If anyone is looking after it now, they are not doing a good job: I will have to take a paint pot and brush next time I run up.
      Another reason for running there is that I might soon not be allowed to. There are proposals to cover the moor with a further 13 or 20 wind turbines, to supplement the 8 already there. If approved, the turbines will effectively eliminate the main virtue that Caton Moor has - the view it affords of the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District peaks.
      I said last week that I thought that to count as running the motion needs to have some zip, a technical term which I carefully didn’t define. If anyone were to say that my current plod hardly has zip then I wouldn’t argue too much. But I like to think that I run at a respectable speed for a pensioner. My average speed last year was about 8 minutes per mile, which is roughly the speed at which Murakami and McDougall ran their fastest marathons (but, of course, I am not running marathons!).
      To tell the truth, I am bemused by those runners, like Murakami and McDougall, who invest so much time and effort on an activity for which they have little natural aptitude and for whom running must always be a struggle rather than a pleasing physical endeavour. I could understand it if, similar to me nowadays, they just went for the occasional jog around the park, to keep generally fit, but they chug along for hour after hour, day after day, month after month, as you must to run marathons and beyond.
      Does it happen to the same degree with other activities? Are there people who swim, or skate, or trampoline, for 12 hours at a time without being particularly good at it? Is there perverse pleasure to be gained in persevering to extreme lengths despite some inadequacy? Do we actually admire those who persist in the face of adversity more than those for whom it comes easily? Do slow but persistent runners revel in the respect gained from good runners? McDougall reports the following exchange with Scott Jurek, one of the world’s best ultra-runners, after his 50-mile race:
    “You were amazing” Scott said.
    “Yeah,” I said. “Amazingly slow”.
    “That’s what I’m saying,” Scott insisted. “I’ve been there, man ... It takes more guts than going fast”.
This, remember, is McDougall writing about himself. He is saying that a supreme ultra-runner, a man who has run over 165 miles in 24 hours, thinks that he (McDougall) is ‘amazing’ and has more guts than he (Jurek) has. I am not amazed that McDougall can run 50 miles in 12 hours but I am amazed that he should want to. I hope now that you will excuse my apparent boastfulness above. It is, it seems, much more commendable to run far and slow than it is to run well.

6.  The School Run
February 12th 2011

In the spirit of candour that has infiltrated these pages I now confess that I was a little disingenuous in my first diary entry. I did not start running in 1978. I had, like most people, run at school and had, unlike most people, enjoyed it. I am sure that the memory of those school-days was part of the reason I took running up (again) in 1978 rather than, say, swimming, of which the only school-day memory I have is of being pushed into the water to test the ‘sink or swim’ theory. I sank.
      Murakami says that running suits his personality because he doesn’t enjoy team sports and is not competitive. Neither applied to me at school. I don’t believe one’s personality fundamentally changes through life, although one’s physical state, environment and social context certainly do. If I am now more individualistic and less competitive, as my running indicates, it is not, I believe, because my personality has changed. If it has then running has been a cause rather than a consequence.
      At school I preferred football to athletics. Football is, of course, a team game. Any personal success or failure is secondary to that of the team. It is impossible to win anything at football unless the team does so. I realised in the first year at grammar school that there were several footballers more talented than me. As a result, I was only on the fringes of the school team. But talent is not always a blessing. Football came too easily to some boys. Often, they did not apply their individual abilities to the best advantage of the team, to the frustration of the teachers in charge. Consequently, over the years, they faded from football. In the end, I played four full years in the school first team and became captain. I learned that, as Murakami would put it, focus and endurance can compensate for a relative lack of talent.
      I would have played football all year if it were possible but the summer term was for cricket. I saw little point in standing in a field all afternoon so, along with a handful of others, opted for athletics, that is, running, in my case. I don’t recall any coaching. We were just left to run around the track as we wished. We couldn’t run all afternoon so we developed a form of interval training, with rather more intervals than training, I suspect.
      The training, such as it was, was more than the cricketers got and when the school sports day came around I was comparatively fit. I usually won one or more of the 440 yards, 880 yards and 1 mile, which were regarded as long-distance races for us. I was excessively competitive, to the mystification, I expect, of most boys. I am sure my head-to-head battle with Whitehouse up the home straight in the 1960 440 yards is talked about to this day. It ranks alongside the Coe-Ovett tussles in the Olympics. I was judged to have come second, by the way. I still hope that a photograph will turn up to prove the judges wrong.

young lad Right: Some young fellow winning some race in about 1960.

      According to the Athletics Association the athletics year started in June, whereas the school year started in September. This meant that I, being born in July, was racing against boys most of whom were in the school year below me. One year I adopted a strategy intended to emphasise my literally superior class. In the longer races, I sprinted off from the gun, leaving the others all far behind (the conventional thing was to jog round until the last bend and then sprint for the tape). Sometimes I ran the first lap of the 880 yards faster than the 440 yards winning time. After the first lap, I just hung on as best I could. It always worked: the others just ignored me and had a race between themselves.
      I never set any school records. My best time for the 880 yards was a shade over 2 minutes. At that time, the world record was about 1:45. So, 2 minutes was quite nippy. Enough to enable me to run for Norfolk a couple of times but then Norfolk is not renowned for its athletes.
      Athletics is not a team game. There may be an ‘athletics team’ and one may be inspired by a team-mate’s performance but ultimately individuals compete as individuals. Success or failure is largely down to the individual. It wasn’t because I am inherently self-centred that I enjoyed running. I appreciated the contrast with football. I felt the two sports complemented one another. In one it is essential to cultivate the team ethic; in the other it is individual determination that counts.

bridleway Left: The bridleway up to the little bridge and the windmills.

      I mention these school-day experiences not because I wallow in the half-century-ago past but because I realise now that they colour my attitude to running today. It is not something that I have ever talked about. Now that I think about it, I can recall some of those summer running activities. I used to run a lap of the track in, say, 75 seconds, then jog a lap and then see how many times I could repeat it. Nobody told me to do it; nobody cared that I did it. It was entirely a personal challenge. I just wanted to see what my body could manage.
      Even now, I have something of that attitude. I know that, if I’m reasonably fit, I can run from the windmills by the bridleway down to the road in 14 minutes. Sometimes, I try to run it faster, again, simply as a personal challenge. I do feel a little self-conscious, but there is never anyone on the bridleway to see me puffing along.
      Running is part of who I am and I am reluctant to lose it, as we inevitably lose so much of ourselves as we get older. I wouldn’t be trying to run now if I hadn’t run in the 1980s; and I probably wouldn’t have run in the 1980s if I hadn’t run in the 1960s. I run now because I can and because I am reasonably good at it (or was). I don’t run because my personality prefers non-competitive, non-team sports. If it were possible, I’d rather play football but I haven’t found a team with a vacancy for a 65-year-old midfield general who mainly gesticulates from the centre circle.
      Perhaps that’s it: running is for those who are not able to do anything else while running.
      Now, in case you are wondering why I’ve said nothing about this week’s running, that’s because I haven’t done any. We’ve had some wild, wet and windy weather that demanded more commitment and determination to run than I have. In any case, I have some sort of bug. A fast pulse, runny nose, aching legs, and generally feeling rough has removed all thought of running. This is a pity as my running this year had, up to this point, gone swimmingly (if that’s possible). It would have followed my schedule, if I dared to have one, for I had not missed a single run through lethargy, as happened many times last year. I was looking forward to getting fitter. One cannot, however, defy the body.

7.  Running Down the Clock
February 19th 2011

The English language does not have a tense suitable for writing about my running. It would be an amalgamation of the past continuous, the present imperfect, and the future implausible. When I write “I am” it often seems necessary to add an “(or was)”. What was so, is no longer so, and may never become so again, but I don’t want to concede this by writing “I was”. Of course, I am not trying to return to the past. I am, however, hoping that whatever I can regain of the running experience will help me to provide a perspective on the nature of running from a vantage point of antiquity.
      This thought was brought into sharp focus this week when I was pleased to pass 100 miles for the year, that is, in the first seven weeks of the year. Once upon a time I ran 100 miles in a week. To be precise, twice upon a time.
      It is odd how we runners go on about our mileages. Murakami, for example, considers 36 miles a week to be his standard for ‘serious running’ but there is no mention of speed. As in so many cases, length isn’t everything - it’s the quality that counts. 36 miles at 6 minutes per mile is very different to 36 miles at 10 minutes per mile. 36 miles up and down hills is very different to 36 miles around a running track.
      Runners’ handbooks always advise runners to keep a detailed log of their running. The idea (or hope) is that runners can analyse their logs to determine reasons for their success or failure and so adapt their training. Until last year, I never bothered, even when I was running with commitment. I guess it seemed too obsessional to me. Perhaps if we had spreadsheets in those days I would have done so, as it is mildly motivating to see the mileage total mount up.
      However, I do have records in an old notebook of my training runs in the three months before the second, third and fourth marathons that I ran. I must have wanted to ensure that I maintained the required mileages in those build-up periods. The records are too brief to count as a log. There are only five words written - “windy”, “snow” and “ice cream bug” - as explanations of missing runs. The last was for three days missed because of eating contaminated ice cream. It smelt vile, through meat leaking into it. We all, except Pamela, who took one sniff and refused it, were very ill.
      A typical entry, for 30 years ago today, is “9/58”, meaning 9 miles in 58 minutes. Of course, I have no idea now where the 9 miles were and whether it was a hard, easy, good or bad run. At least, I can sit here now and read with some incredulity how much I ran in those three sets of 13 weeks. Before my second marathon it was: 49, 54, 57, 50, 54, 45, 66, 70, 58, 74, 79, 47 and 40 miles (an average of 57 miles a week). And I didn’t just accumulate the miles - I went at a fair speed, an average of about 6:30 per mile. Of course, this is still puny by the standards of top marathon runners like Haile Gebrselassie, who run at least twice as far each week and much faster.
      For my third marathon I ran somewhat further in those 13 weeks: an average of 63 miles a week, also at 6:30 per mile. And yet further for the fourth marathon: 63, 66, 75, 76, 79, 52, 80, 100, 72, 75, 64, 72, 46 miles (an average of 71 miles a week). I ran the 100 miles just to see what it was like. I sense that my enthusiasm for keeping a record was waning at this stage, as the entries become even briefer, with the minutes missing.
      Now, they are just numbers on the page. It is hard to remember exactly what running 60 or 70 miles a week for month after month was like. I know it wasn’t easy. I recall that I used to say that I woke up tired and went to bed tireder. And that’s it. I kept no record of my later running, until last year. I suppose I saw no point in it.
      Nowadays, I run, if I’m lucky, about a third as far as in those distant days, and much slower. My spreadsheet tells me that since I started keeping the log in January 2010 the most that I have run in any week is 35 miles, which is proof that I am not up to Murakami’s standard of serious running.

hut lawson's wood Left: The River Lune and fishermen’s hut (a different hut to that shown in week 4), below Lawson’s Wood. Ingleborough is in the distance. This hut is 400 yards upstream of the Waterworks Bridge. I ran here after the heavy rain of a few weeks ago, when the river was full to the brim and lapping over the green fields, which was a scary experience. It is near here that Ruth has seen one of the otters that have recently returned to the Lune. I haven’t seen one yet: they can hear my wheezing a mile off.

      It is easy to see why runners get fixated on their mileages. They are something concrete to focus on. They give a measure of progress and provide a challenge to improve. But it’s like keeping a log of how long you spend gardening: it rather misses the point. From now on, I’ll stop trying to squeeze a mention of mileages into this text unless there is a good reason to do so (but, just in case any reader should feel bereft, I’ll tuck the mileages, for the week and the year, unobtrusively at the bottom left of these pages). There is, in any case, something irrational about focussing on mileages rather than minuteages. It is the minuteage that is the more precise measure, unless you use a GPS device, which is an unnecessary extravagance for me.
      A couple of weeks ago I said that I ran up to the Caton Moor trig point and back in an hour. I don’t know the mileage precisely. It is irrelevant, really. The route is an idiosyncratic one, up and down the hill, wiggling about on road, track, grassy field and rough moor. I can estimate the effective distance better by the time it takes me to run it than by what the map says. In fact, I know my runs better by the times they usually take me rather than whatever distances they might be. I select a run on the basis of how much time I want to run, not on how far.
      This week, mileage has been the least of my concerns. It is tempting, as the body begins to recover from illness, to set out to make up for lost time but, after an eight-day layoff, much of what fitness I had has evaporated. I still feel too feeble to contemplate anything like a run up to the trig point. I don’t have the energy for any hills at all, and have therefore just run along the riverside or the old railway line, which have the welcome virtue of being flat.
      I’ve settled for regularity rather than boldness. I’ve run every day since Sunday, but slowly and not far. I consider the runs, such as they are, to be part of my rehabilitation programme. I want my body to expect to run every day (before my bug, my running had been rather irregular and the body had always seemed to take offence when asked to run).
      While I’ve not been paying attention, nature has moved on a little. The dawn chorus has begun. The daffodils have shot up. The afternoons are brighter longer, enabling a run after tea-time. But it is still quiet by the river. The flocks of a few weeks ago seem to have been blown away by the gales of last week. Everything, including me, is in a state of uncertainty, unsure whether the winter is in the past or the present.
21/116

8.  Run Amuck
February 26th 2011

Focus and endurance are not enough. They only apply once an activity is underway. Something more is needed to get started. For runners perhaps this is the attribute of defiance, a sort of bloody-mindedness that relishes overcoming whatever challenges there may be. Or maybe it’s a lack of imagination, an inability to perceive that the challenges should be postponed for a while.
      I used to run with a runner who always accelerated when he came to a small hill. He seemed to take the hill as a personal affront: “this hill thinks it’s going to slow me down - well, I’ll show it”. McDougall seemed determined to defy the advice that his body wasn’t suited to running. My attempts at running today may be interpreted as trying to defy the effects of aging.
      Similarly with the weather. Sensible people regard bad weather as an excuse to stay indoors. Keen runners almost welcome bad weather. They defy it: “rain as hard as you like, be as cold as you like, but you won’t stop me - in fact, I’ll enjoy it even more”. Running, after all, is one of the few outdoor activities that need not be stopped by bad weather. Extreme weather adds a frisson to the challenge. There was always an extra buzz in the university gym when we gathered to run in a storm outside.
      This attitude begins, I think, with cross-country runs at school. The large majority of people do not enjoy such runs but I rather liked the paradoxical foolhardiness of cross-country running. Cross-country is what you do when the sports pitches are unusable because of the weather (at least, it was at my school). The worse the conditions, the more cross-country made sense. The games teachers seemed to think so because they took pleasure in making us run unnecessarily through muddy ditches and over hedges, when a convenient gate was often available.
      My very first competitive runs were not on the school athletics track but at cross-country. It was from the cross-country runs that I first realised that I had some ability at running. When the first-year cross-country race was to take place we all trekked out to the starting place and I eagerly positioned myself at the front. It turned out to be the back, for the race set off in the opposite direction. I had to weave my way through the majority of boys who were walking and jogging, with no enthusiasm for the race.
      By the time the finishing line came in sight I was fourth. A teacher urged me on: “He’s tiring, you can catch him”. The boy ahead did indeed seem to be tiring, with his head lolling from side to side. So, with a ferocious sprint, I managed to pip him to take third place. I overheard some spectators wondering why it mattered so much. I recall thinking that it was because I knew that the names of the first three boys were read out at the next morning’s assembly. All that effort for a little bit of fame! Motivation does not always have a commendable derivation.
      In the eight school cross-country races that I ran I always came 2nd, 3rd or 4th. I never won - but it was good enough to make me a regular in the school cross-country team. Every year we would travel to somewhere in Norfolk to race against the other Norfolk schools. It seemed to be a tradition in these races for the runners to run astray. Only the local runners knew the course and if they weren’t in the lead nobody knew where to go. Once, I recall, we ran around the Great Yarmouth horse-racing course and along the beach. I’m not sure if we were supposed to: it certainly didn’t seem much like a cross-country race. Somewhat miraculously, the runners usually finished up where they should, but not necessarily in the right order (as Eric Morecambe once said).

lune flood Right: The Lune floodplain, flooded, as is its wont.

      There was an element of this mayhem in the University Stepping Stones race. We all knew the course but the weather conditions were usually bad in December. In 1980 the stepping stones were far under water and a safety rope across the river was provided. Even so, I was washed away. It is not often that part of a race is run under water. That year I was 6th - but all the sensible runners did not run.
      I did run in one adult cross-country race, in some kind of Lancashire league competition, in about 1981 but, frankly, I thought it too foolish. It is one thing to splash about in mud when you’re young and told to but for grown men (and women) voluntarily to submit themselves to this indignity was incomprehensible to me. Apart from that, it is mainly the really good cross-country runners who continue into adulthood and I finished much too far back in the field for my liking.
      Nowadays I have become a little soft. I rarely run in bad weather, because, being retired, I can just wait until it passes and run then. It doesn’t rain all day very often. In the 1980s, when running had to be fitted in when it could, I ran whatever the weather. I do sometimes come back from my runs covered in mud, from running about on the boggy moors or on the flooded floodplain, but that is my choice. That makes all the difference.
      This is the hardest time of the year to run. In the cold, dark days of winter, runners don’t complain about the conditions. They are what you expect in winter. But now, as we approach March, we begin to think that we deserve some reward. We want the sun to warm us up a little on our runs. We want to discard some of the layers of winter clothing. We want running to become a more rational activity.
      But no, the cold winds continue to blow, the rain falls, and the cloud stays low on the hills. As a result, the fields stay waterlogged. The only comfortable run is along the sheltered railway line and back. But who wants comfort? If I wanted comfort, I could stay in bed or sit reading the paper or watching day-time television. Well, maybe, perhaps, just today, I could ... Runners like to imagine that they are engaged in a perpetual battle between the attractions of idleness and the compulsion to run. Sometimes they feel virtuous in repulsing the attractions; sometimes their free will triumphs over the compulsion.
      However, idleness is not the only alternative to running. I have many other, more or less useful, ways to pass my time. But none is really an alternative to my running. I am never so busy that I cannot find the time to run. The question is simple: do I want to run or not? Usually, I do. Even this week, I have continued to put on the wet running shoes and the mud-spattered gear, to get out onto the fields again, defying these unappealing conditions.
      On Sunday I ran up the moor to the windmills. The cold wind blew hard against me. The low cloud prevented me seeing the fresh snow on Ward’s Stone, the highest point (561 metres) of the Forest of Bowland. The bogs almost sucked my shoes off. But I am sure that I was the only person to defeat the moor that day.
      To my general breathlessness and tiredness, I have added stiffness of the thighs and shoulders, as a result of carrying skis up and down Raise, near Helvellyn, on Tuesday. This was so that Ruth could ski there for the first, and probably last, time this season (I have no wish to ski myself). Consequently, since Tuesday I have only been able to plod along the riverside. I’ve had it to myself because the fields are too muddy for all but the keenest walkers and, of course, there are no runners other than me.
      I don’t think that ‘run’ is the right word for my motion. There is a lot of slipping and sloshing about. I feel like a toddler splashing in the puddles. I really must try to grow up.
21/137

9.  Should Find A Running Banquet Ere They Rested [1]
March 5th 2011

Maybe the answer lies in spinach - the question being “Where can I get more energy from?” Popeye used to swallow the contents of a can of spinach and his muscles were bulging instantly. At least, his arm muscles were. I can’t picture his leg muscles but surely they must have been bulging too.
      I am struggling with my running at the moment. I am doing my best, I swear. It is not that I am so overcome with ennui that I cannot be bothered to run. I run, or try to, most days, but I have little energy. I am so listless that I am wondering if I will ever have any list again. I am in that state I mentioned in Week 5, of doubting that my body will be able to run comfortably again. My running seems laboured and ungainly. So much for the ‘zip’ I boasted about a few weeks ago. I also said then that I enjoyed the process of running. That was then: I am getting little enjoyment from running as badly as I am at the moment.
      If I didn’t know that I’d run up to the trig point just a few weeks ago then I’d scarcely believe such a thing were possible. When I reach any sort of slope now I can hardly keep moving. I am therefore avoiding slopes and continuing to jog along the railway line and river bank, which, through repetition, is getting a little uninspiring, picturesque though it may be.

lune at crook Right: The River Lune from the old railway line at the Crook o’ Lune.

      Perhaps I will have to accept that my body needs a nap, not a half-hour run, in the afternoon. No, no, not yet. I will persevere. I am just temporarily (I hope) run-down from my illness of a couple of weeks ago. I just need a little pick-me-up. Now, where’s that spinach? I don’t mean that spinach itself is the answer. That would be silly. Popeye was only a cartoon character. I mean that perhaps if I had a better diet then I would have more energy. Let’s see what the greatest athletes eat.
      Perhaps the Tarahumaras, the “greatest runners of all time” (McDougall, p4), can teach me something about diet. McDougall reports the case of an exhausted explorer who was handed “a gourd full of murky liquid. He swallowed a few gulps, and was amazed to feel new energy pulsing through his veins. He got to his feet and scaled the peak like an overcaffeinated Sherpa”. Sounds just like Popeye and his spinach. They also have a “special energy food ... a few mouthfuls of which packed enough nutritional punch to let them run all day without rest”.
      I don’t know if the “murky liquid” is the same thing as lechuguilla (McDougall, p15). This is a homemade tequila made from cactus sap and rattlesnake corpses. After partying on lechuguilla all night, the Tarahumaras could run as far as 435 miles. Why they needed to run 435 miles I have no idea. That would take them way out of their canyon, as far as the United States border and back. (Would live rattlesnakes provide even more oomph?)
      I have ordered fifty crates of lechuguilla. I am looking forward to partying all Friday night and then spending the weekends running to places like Cardiff, Middlesborough and Dundee and back. I don’t need to go to Cardiff, Middlesborough or Dundee but I will save a fortune in rail fares or petrol by running there.
      Perhaps the “murky liquid” is iskiate, which is described as a “gooey slime” (McDougall, p43). McDougall tried this and “within minutes, [he] felt fantastic ... the low-throbbing headache [he]’d had all morning ... had vanished”. He doesn’t say that he dashed up any peaks though.
      Iskiate is made by dissolving chia seeds in water with sugar and lime. According to McDougall, “you couldn’t do much better than chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease”. Well, who isn’t? I’ve ordered fifty boxes of chia, too. With McDougall’s assurance that “Aztec runners used to chomp chia seeds as they went into battle”, I should be well equipped to take on my trig point again.
      The Tarahumaras must eat more than chia, so I have searched McDougall’s book from cover to cover to see what else is in their diet. All I could find was that they live on “little more than ground corn spiced up by their favourite delicacy, barbecued mouse”. I don’t need to order these because I can buy corn locally and I can catch mice in the garden. I wonder how many mice I’ll need to make a meal. Do you think it would be ok if I topped them up with the occasional shrew, vole or mole?
      On reflection, perhaps I shouldn’t believe everything I read. It is said that the creator of Popeye had him eating spinach because he thought that spinach had ten times more iron than it actually did (through an academic misplacing a decimal point in some paper). As a result, generations of United States children were given extra spinach to eat. This is often held up as an example of how faulty policy decisions can be made if data is not carefully checked.
      Actually, although the misplaced decimal point story is often told, no paper about spinach and iron has ever been found with a misplaced decimal point. The story was made up, apparently. So those writers who continue to repeat it (and many do, as a Google search will show) are themselves guilty of not carefully checking their data. Anyway, we all know that Popeye wasn’t eating spinach for the iron. It was the vitamins he was after: “Spinach is full of vitamin A an’ tha’s what makes hoomans strong an’ helty” (Popeye, July 3rd 1932).
      Anybody want any lechuguilla or chia?
      Do you know that Alan Sherman ditty “Hello muddah, hello fadduh” to the tune of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours? In it, a boy writes home to his parents describing the woes of summer camp - rain, poison ivy, ptomaine poisoning, alligators, malaria, bears. And then the sun comes out and he ends “... that’s better ... kindly disregard this letter”.
      I feel like that boy. The sun is shining at last. There is a touch of green on the hedges. The first lambs are in the fields. A few daffodils are out. One or two skylarks are singing. Some of the curlews are curlewing. Yes, that’s better. There is a touch of spring in the air - but sadly not in my step.
lune from wenning

The River Lune near where the River Wenning joins (I usually run along the left bank)

[1].  Shakespeare, William, Henry VIII, Act 1, Scene 4.
19/156

10.  In the Long Run
March 12th 2011

gate Right: My run up [1] to the windmills this week was halted at this gate when I saw four hares running around in the field beyond. In Britain the hare has declined more than any other mammal except the water vole but they seem content enough on Caton Moor. I stopped and watched them for several minutes. Of all the animals that I see on my runs, I feel the most affinity with the hare (if I may so presume). The others run, but usually in alarm; hares seem to run just because they want to.
      These four ran around the moor aimlessly, sometimes alone, sometimes together, occasionally pausing to box one another’s ears. They weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere particular. They just liked to run. And it all seemed so effortless, loping in graceful loops up and down the hummocks on the moor. Just like me, or so I imagine, although I don’t have any co-runners to box the ears of. Incidentally, it used to be assumed that the boxing was an inter-male challenge but it is now thought to be initiated by female hares rebuffing the males’ advances. I will leave you to work out any analogy to human behaviour.
      I left the hares to it and ran off in another direction.


Runners cannot stand still. They must always be on the lookout for the latest advances that might add that all-important edge to their running. New running shoe technologies, dietary supplements, psychological techniques, medical treatments, and so on, must all be thoroughly investigated or the runner risks being left behind.
      I have found fresh inspiration this week from news of the first robot marathon. The race in Osaka was won by Robovie-PC in a time of nearly 55 hours. So, Robovie-PC ‘runs’ about 2 metres in the time that Usain Bolt runs 100 metres. Of course, these are only the first steps. We need to extrapolate from this performance to foresee the implications for human running.
      The race rules insisted that robots must get up themselves after a fall. Quite right, too: human racers aren’t supposed to be helped if they collapse. Support teams could, however, replace robot batteries when they ran low. This is an excellent innovation. The rules for human races do not prohibit the carrying out of surgical operations during a race. This, I am sure, is the future. If I could replace my battery - and other failing body components - I might be able to complete another marathon after all, although there may not be much of the real me left by the end.
      I needed no such assistance during my first marathon. Before it, I had, after two years of running around the lanes near the university, been cajoled into taking part in a road-race. This was a momentous, life-changing step. To pin a number on one’s vest and compete on the public streets was a statement of commitment that I was not sure that I wanted to make. All road-racers then were serious: the concept of a ‘fun-runner’ was then unknown in Britain.
      Road-races were organised by local athletic clubs and contested by intense runners. My first road-race was the Windermere-to-Kendal 10-mile in March 1980. I thought that would at least provide a good day out for the family. I came 127th out of 335 in 58 minutes. Fourth was a 19-year-old Steve Cram who, five years later, was to break the 1500 metres world record.

lune at crook Left: The end of the 1980 Preston-to-Morecambe Marathon. The lady with the bag was disqualified for not running the whole course.

      My modest performance in the Windermere-to-Kendal race was enough for me to enter the local marathon, the Preston-to-Morecambe, to be held in July. No messing about, then. It is often said, mainly to alarm virgin marathon runners, that at the 20-mile point of a marathon you are only halfway, because of all the calamities that are likely to occur after that point. So, on that basis, a marathon was four times further than I’d raced before. The course was from Preston, north along the A6, through the centre of Lancaster, and on the B5321 to Morecambe. That route could not possibly be a ‘fun run’. I am sure that the police would not allow it today. They more or less ignored it then.
      It was, of course, a daunting prospect and I had little idea how to prepare for it, other than to run as much as I could. I thought that I should at least join the local club. When I rang the secretary to join and mentioned that I’d entered the marathon he wondered if that was wise, which was hardly encouraging. I reassured him by saying that I was ‘running with’ two long-standing members, Tony and Mike. Tony was ten years old than me and an experienced marathon runner, always winning prizes and medals in his age group. Mike was also a proper athlete with a smooth running style, more suited perhaps to a shorter distance and a faster pace than Tony’s short, pattering steps. I thought that the safest thing to do was to follow them, as far as I could!
      The only other idea I had was to try to forget that I was supposed to run 26 miles. I intended to ignore the race for 20 miles. I thought that looking at the other runners bobbing along in front of me for hours would make me dizzy, so I intended to keep my head up, look around, and take in the surroundings. I recall seeing the skyline of the Bowland hills, barely visible through the murky cloud, evolve on my right as the miles passed.
      Athletic clubs took great pride in organising these events. A few days after the race we were sent details of the race results, with 5-mile split times for all the runners, all carefully recorded by hand (no computer timing in those days). Studying them closely now, I see that I ran with Mike for 20 miles, always about 6 seconds behind Tony. At 20 miles, Mike began to flag. He dropped behind as we ran through the Lancaster Saturday afternoon shoppers. Beyond Lancaster, I came onto the shoulder of Tony, with the intention of saying “Let’s go get the guy in front”. But Tony was flagging a little too. So I finished first local runner (19th overall) in 2:37.
      Afterwards, it seemed that I’d just run on the others’ shoulders and then sprinted away at the end, a tactic which is somewhat suspect among friends, if acceptable to win an Olympic medal. However, looking at those 5-mile split times, I see that I ran 28½, 30½, 28½, 30½, 31 minutes for each 5 miles and that Mike took 35 minutes and Tony 32 minutes for the fifth 5 miles. I didn’t accelerate: they slowed more than me. I ran behind them for 20 miles because I didn’t know what else to do. It would have been foolishly presumptuous of me to try to run ahead of them!
      A few weeks ago I argued that Murakami and McDougall were not marathoners (that is, one of McDougall’s two kinds of great runner) because they were too slow. I didn’t mean to be critical. To help put their marathon times in perspective, if they had run their best times in the 1980 Preston-to-Morecambe Marathon they would have finished 98th and 110th out of 112. 88% of the runners finished inside 3:30. And the Preston-to-Morecambe was by no means a top-class marathon.
      Robovie-PC would have finished two days later. Or, more likely, would have been squashed on the A6.

[1].  Yes, up. I have found a little more energy this week but not enough to write home (or here) about.
23/179

11.  Runner-Up
March 19th 2011

A strange thing happened on my Sunday run. I set off intending to run up the road to the windmills and down through the hares’ playground. After 5 minutes I felt so tired that I nearly stopped and walked back home, but I struggled on slowly. As I did so I realised that it must have rained heavily overnight because water was pouring off the moor. I didn’t fancy the morass that the hares’ playground would be, so I continued instead on the track (shown in week 5) that runs below the Caton Moor trig point.
      After at last reaching the highest point of the track I thought that I might as well run along the flat top to have a view of Ingleborough. It was in cloud but Pen-y-Ghent was clear. Having come this far, I thought that I might as well continue to Roeburndale Road and return on the other side of the windmills, rather than retrace my steps. After 50 minutes running I reached a point from which I know that, when I’m fit, I can get back home in 15 minutes. I thought that I might as well try to do so then - and I did. It was a novel experience to run much further than intended (I often run less!). It was even more novel to feel better after 65 minutes running than after 5.
      Caton Moor is a dull pudding of a hill, without any rocks, crags or cliffs to appeal to the energetic scrambler, but it is a different matter across the Roeburndale Road. Here, on Haylot Fell, Blanch Fell and Black Fell, below Ward’s Stone, there are great jumbles of millstone grit boulders, covered in tough heather. It is impossible to run smoothly over this. There are, however, some rough tracks for rough running and a few smooth ones for grouse-shooters’ vehicles (and smooth running).
      Some people enjoy racing over such terrain. The ‘fell-race’ is the locally favoured form of cross-country race. It involves getting up some peak, or several of them, and down again as fast as possible. The courses are generally longer and always steeper than cross-country ones, and they are usually unmarked between checkpoints, so that the fell-racer needs mountain navigational skills as well.
      Back in the 1980s, when I was game for any kind of running, I felt that I should join in with the local customs, so I had a go. Three goes, in fact. I soon found that fell-racing was not for me. It did not suit me, physically or mentally. I do not have the upper-body strength to force my body up such steep slopes or the ankles to withstand the twisting and battering provided by rough, uneven rocks. More importantly, I am not mentally tough enough for fell-races. It is very difficult to keep running uphill when the thighs and lungs feel like bursting. Often, it is not possible, even for the best fell-racers. The run becomes a hands-on-knees scramble. Downhill is even worse. It is necessary to be recklessly brave to hurtle down craggy slopes at the speeds of the best fell-racers.
      I like to get into a rhythm when I run, with a steady stride gliding over the ground (I like to imagine). This is just not possible in fell-racing. You have to have the agility to adjust all the limbs as the terrain rushes by. The organisers of fell-races are not entirely sadistic, as racers are not expected to run over precipitous cliffs, but even so, there is a real risk of accident and exhaustion. It is not unknown for fell-racers to die of exposure after becoming injured or lost in bad weather.
      Most people, when they reach the top of a peak, are glad of the chance to rest and savour the panorama that they have earned. Fell-racers don’t have the time for that. They head straight back down, with not a glance about them. Indeed, there is no chance to appreciate the scenery on the way up or down: up, your head is between your knees and up the backside of the fell-racer ahead; down, you need to keep your eyes on the rocks ahead.
      And I felt sorry for the fells. They deserve more respect than this. Many of them are being eroded away by relatively gentle walkers. A few hundred fell-racers do them no good at all. A YouTube video of the descent from Scafell Pike during the Borrowdale fell-race shows the demolition that is caused.

skiddaw Left: Skiddaw on April 2nd last year. The fell-race route is up to the left of the gully at the right, past the tops of Jenkin Hill and Little Man, and on to the top of Skiddaw, and back the same way.

      My three fell-races were up Pendle, Skiddaw and Wansfell. I was totally unprepared for the first, Pendle. At the start, the racers sprinted across the field at a speed that seemed unwarranted, considering the total distance to be run. I soon understood why. Once onto the fell, there was only a narrow path, where over-taking was virtually impossible. I also soon found out that my footwear was quite unsuitable for the wet, slippery, grassy slopes. I came a chastened 140th out of 263.
      I did rather better at Skiddaw, coming 50th out of 193, taking 74 minutes, but I did not enjoy the race at all. The descent was headlong scariness. Wansfell was a traditional day-after-Boxing-Day outing rather than a serious fell-race. However, I did learn that ice and snow don’t make fell-racing any more enjoyable.
      It is only when you have tried and failed at something that you fully appreciate those skilled at it. I am in awe of the best fell-racers. The Wasdale course, up classic Lakeland peaks such as Great Gable and Scafell Pike (21 miles, 9000 feet ascent), in 3:25! How is that possible? The races are not all endurance ones. In some ways, the straight dash up and down Wansfell (2½ miles, 1500 feet ascent) in under 19 minutes is even more impressive.
      I feel I understand the great marathon runners. I have an idea of how they can run a marathon in 2:04. In fact, I’d be surprised if they couldn’t. But fell-racing is a mystery to me. I can’t conceive how they do it. The nearest equivalent in sport is perhaps the Tour de France cyclists who can pedal non-stop up huge mountains and then zoom down the other side.
      Fell-racers are an insular breed of runner. A walker might come across them and wonder what they are up to, but otherwise their exploits are unknown to the general public. Fell-races are never mentioned on television or in newspapers. Fell-racers like it that way. Recent British champions are Simon Booth, Rob Jebb and Rob Hope - good solid names but not exactly household ones, are they? The best fell-racers are clearly great runners but they are neither kind of great runner (sprinter and marathoner) identified by McDougall. Some of them run for longer than marathon runners but, obviously, road-racing is not their scene. And, I am content to admit, fell-racing is not mine.
26/205

12.  Run Short
March 26th 2011

cragg Right: Littledale and Ward’s Stone (above the barn) from the Cragg.

This week I ran a new personal best (PB). I ran up to the Cragg and back in 44½ minutes, which is my fastest time since records began. But hold the champagne! My records began only last January, and my PBs are very personal. So personal that I am sure that all my PBs are world bests. Nobody else runs the same courses as me.
      I blame my running shorts. My long running trousers for the winter months are quite content to let me merge in with the winter walkers but my shorts mean business. If I wear them, then I’ve really got to run. On Tuesday I woke up my shorts from their hibernation in the cupboard and they whisked me up and down the hill in no time. I exaggerate: in 44½ minutes, as I’ve said.
      Closer scrutiny of my spreadsheet showed that I had run up to the Cragg only twice before since January 2010. It is not my favourite run. The steep road down is hard on leg muscles not used to it but at least there is a fine view from the top - of Littledale and Ward’s Stone to the east and of the Lake District hills over Morecambe Bay to the west. My 44½ minutes was the best of the three times: a magnificent achievement, I’m sure you’ll agree. I need encouragement from wherever I can find it.
      The relationship between a runner and his PBs is one of the most emotionally intense in sport. It creeps up on a runner. He runs a ‘fun 10k’ in 50 minutes; someone says “not bad”; he thinks “it was only a jog, I can do better than that”; he runs another 10k in 48 minutes; and, before he knows it, he is elbowing to the front at the starting line in order to save a couple of seconds that might make all the difference to that elusive PB.
      There is an element of PB-chasing in all sports based on numbers. All batsmen know their highest innings; all snooker players know their biggest break; all golfers know their lowest round. Only in running does the PB become, for some people, the main motivator. Murakami writes that “Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat”.
      The trouble with chasing PBs is that they take more and more effort to achieve. After a while, as fit as you may be, it takes a fortuitous combination of ideal conditions (weather, course, competition, and so on) to deliver a PB. Eventually, the PB becomes, not a motivator, but a de-motivator, as the reality of diminishing returns sets in. Why invest three months of hard effort for a marathon when you expect that it will show that you have run faster in the past?
      Murakami says, as he realised that PBs were no longer forthcoming, that “a sense of disappointment set in that all my hard work wasn’t paying off”. At least he kept running his marathons: I gave up road-racing in the mid-1980s after, but not because, I realised that there would be no more proper PBs.
      Running times are rather brutal in revealing the effects of aging. The best marathon times for different ages become steadily slower after the age of 35. Well, not quite steadily, as there are fluctuations but if you average over a five year period the trend is clear. To estimate the decline through aging we may compare, say, the present 60-year-old best (2:36) with the world best 25 years ago, that is, the 2:07 of Carlos Lopez. In this way, we can calculate the percentage decline:
   40-44 45-49 50-54 55-59 60-64 65-69 70-74 75-79
    6%    9%    13%   19%   27%   30%   38%   59%
The women’s figures are similar but distorted because the modern breed of women marathon runner has not yet worked its way through the age groups and because very few women ran marathons forty years ago.
      These figures do not accord with those quoted by McDougall (p240). He says that marathon runners peak at 27 and that 64-year-olds run as fast as 19-year-olds. In fact, the world’s best times for all ages from 18 to 36 are in the range 2:04 to 2:06, with Gebrselassie’s record set at the age of 35, and the 64-year-old best is 2:44. This rather disputes his argument that “we’re not only really good at endurance running, we’re really good at it for a remarkably long time”.
      Assuming that the ordinary runner declines at the same rate as the best runner, then a marathon PB of 3:30 would equate to an ‘age-adjusted PB’ for a 60- 64-year old of 4:27 (that is, 27% slower than 3:30). If Murakami, now 62, aimed for that then he might be less disappointed. Actually, Murakami says that he peaked in his late forties, when he should, according to the above figures, have been 9% slower than his best. Perhaps if he had run seriously earlier he would have achieved a PB 9% faster, that is, 3:11. Then his age-adjusted PB would be 4:03. If I were Murakami, I’d forget about this refinement.
      It is not difficult, then, if you are a runner driven by PBs, to include an ‘aging factor’. It would, I imagine, be quite motivating to show that, although you are inevitably getter slower, you are getting slower slower than you should.
      For myself, I didn’t worry about PBs after the experience of the 1984 Great North-Western Half-Marathon. It was a very hot day. Runners were collapsing all around with heat exhaustion. It was the only race I ran where the medical staff at the finish leapt up to my assistance: I clearly looked exhausted (and I was). I don’t blame the organisers for the weather but I do blame them for arranging that a fun run, which set off after the half-marathon runners were on their way, should share the last mile or two with the racers. There is little worse for a runner than, when exhaustion is setting in and the legs are beginning to wobble, to have to weave through prams and pantomime horses spread out across the road. However, all was forgiven when I saw my time - a PB by a good 3 minutes! My training had really paid off this time.
      A few days later a letter arrived. The organisers apologised for the fact that, owing to roadworks, the course had been changed at the last moment and, on re-measuring, had been found to be more than half-a-mile short. I was somewhat deflated.
      Then, I thought, how accurate are these course measurements? Every race organiser knows that a reputation as ‘a fast course’ will boost the number of entries. If a course is short that will certainly make it fast. Excluding my first and last marathons, all my marathon times were within 1% of their average. I wonder, now, if the courses were measured to 99% accuracy. Nowadays no subterfuge is possible because rich runners are able to use GPSs to track themselves to two decimal places. In the 1980s courses were probably measured by a man on a bicycle.
      Then, the seconds mattered a lot. Today, they don’t matter at all. My so-called PBs now are just to add a bit of interest. Now, I never set out to run a PB. If I find that I am going well and a glance at the watch suggests that a bit of effort might bring a good time, then I might make that effort. But I just run steadily home. I don’t sprint down the street, eyeballs out, as runners say, collapsing on the doorstep. I don’t want to alarm the neighbours.
29/234

13.  Running It Fine
April 2nd 2011

In his preface Murakami quotes the slogan “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”. According to Murakami, “the most important aspect of marathon running” is that “the [pain] is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself”.
      There are two aspects to all sporting activities: the physical and the mental. It may suit some marathon runners to present their achievement as an entirely mental one, as a heroic battle to overcome pain that shows their bravery and fortitude. Long-distance running should not require bravery, however. It is not an activity that has to skirt on the edge of danger, like downhill skiing, motor-bike racing or mountaineering, where a moment of inattention or incompetence can have body-shattering consequences.
      It is possible, as with all activities, to have accidents, by, for example, tripping over a kerb and twisting an ankle, but with running they are relatively rare and minor. Provided that there has been thorough preparation in the preceding months, a runner should not set off on a marathon expecting pain. The worst that should be anticipated is periods of weariness or struggle that have to be overcome by resilience and determination. Of course, it may turn out worse than this but that is no reason to depress or worry oneself by expecting it to.
      A marathon should not be a battle against pain, and nor should any other running. Not all runners agree with me: Clarence DeMar, who won the Boston Marathon seven times between 1911 and 1928 and who therefore should have known what he was talking about, said we should “run like hell and get the agony over with”.
      The answer to the question “How long does it take you to run a marathon?” is “About 100 days”. That’s assuming you are reasonably fit to start with. The final day is only the visible tip of the iceberg. It is the final day that gets all the attention, naturally, but the previous 99 days are the more important. An honest appraisal of the 99 days makes the final day entirely predictable, barring any misfortune. For this reason, I never felt elated at the end of a marathon. The race itself was always more or less what might have been anticipated. Satisfied and relieved, yes; but surprised and elated, no.
      Looking back, it was the whole 100 days, not the final day, that was the achievement. In today’s hectic life we don’t often have the opportunity to commit to a long-term project, involving hardship and effort, and to see it through. In previous centuries it was the norm. A farmer might look at a field and decide he needed a stone wall around it - he might work at it for an hour each morning, building a few feet of the wall, and after 100 days he’d have his wall. Or his wife might want a new rug for the bedroom, so she’d set aside an hour each evening to sew a few square inches.
      Marathon running is similar. You do a bit each day, gradually building up the reserves and strength, to deliver a product on the final day. The product is less tangible than a wall or a rug but the sense of achievement may be similar. For me, the most significant outcome was the realisation that I had the self-discipline to work at something for an extended period, often at some inconvenience, to deliver the best that I was capable of.
      I am a little disillusioned that Murakami considers that long-distance running is like novel writing. I would have predicted that he’d say that he welcomed the contrast between the repetitive commitment of running and the spasms of creative inspiration that illuminates the work of a novelist. I hadn’t pictured a novelist chaining himself to his desk every morning, forcing himself to write 750 words before lunch, much like a bricklayer might aim to lay 750 bricks in the morning (I know nothing about writing novels or laying bricks: 750 words or bricks in a morning may be wildly unrealistic). I thought that it was more like Mozart dashing off three symphonies in a month, when he was in the mood.

crook Left: The River Lune at the Crook o’Lune. I have three routes to the Crook, two by the river and one along the old railway line, giving six possible loops. I could have a different run there, 4 or 5 miles, every day of the week (with a rest day). I think I would be content if that was all that I could manage, for it is a fine stretch of river. In general, though, I prefer to mix in some runs up the hills (for the views), not that I have managed much of that this week. After the positive tone of the previous two weeks, this has been a steady week of consolidation: no real problems but not much progress either.

      After the 1980 Preston-to-Morecambe Marathon I knew that I was physically capable of running a marathon but not necessarily mentally capable. I had left all the mental stresses to my two pace-setting friends. I had deliberately avoided thinking about the race for 20 miles. So I felt an obligation to run a marathon ‘on my own’.
      I duly entered two marathons in 1981, at Huddersfield and Barnsley. Both were, like the Preston Marathon, organised by local running clubs for serious runners from clubs in the region, that is, the north of England. Unlike the Preston Marathon, they were out-and-back marathons, that is, starting and finishing in the same place. As with the Preston Marathon, the large majority of the runners (84% for the Huddersfield Marathon; I have lost the details for the Barnsley Marathon) finished inside 3:30. I came 8th in 2:33 and 23rd in 2:32 in the two races but, as I indicated above, the most important outcome was the knowledge that I had the discipline to run marathons.
      One thing that strikes me now, although it didn’t concern me much at the time, is how uneventful marathon races are. In 90 minutes of football you expect to be intrigued by the changing balances of play, to see the tactics evolve, to see moments of skill and calamity, and to be aware of the different qualities and contributions of the individual players. There’s enough to keep people talking and arguing until the next game.
      In a marathon nothing much happens. Runners set off at their different speeds, a handful go into the lead, one separates off to win. There are no incidents of interest (unless Paula Radcliffe sits down and cries). There is a subtle ebb and flow as runners have their spells of weariness and energy but this is hardly apparent to either participants or spectators. I have avoided the word ‘boring’ because, as a participant, I didn’t find the marathons so. But for spectators a marathon must surely be boring except for those brief moments when a relative or friend runs by. Perhaps it’s the sheer uneventfulness that appeals to some people.
      I can remember a fair amount about some football matches in the 1950s (such as Norwich City 3 Manchester United 0) but I can remember very little about the Huddersfield and Barnsley Marathons. This is not a failure of memory. There just isn’t much to remember. I recall being overtaken by an old guy (about 20 years younger than I am now) who was singing to himself, which seemed rather odd at the time, but that’s hardly of riveting interest.
      I do, however, recall being aware that this was probably as good as it would get, as far as marathon running was concerned. Maybe with a less undulating course I could have knocked a minute or two off. Maybe I could have got under 2:30 but that didn’t seem worth getting excited about when the distance itself (26 miles and 385 yards) is so idiosyncratic. Maybe I could have trained less to cause sufficient pain to make me feel more heroic.
26/260

14.  Sorry, I’ve Got To Run
April 9th 2011

On Monday, as I was trotting along the old railway line, one of man’s best friends bit my upper thigh. I thought it not unreasonable to remonstrate mildly with the owner, a smart, middle-aged lady. She replied “What can you expect if you come along here flapping your arms about? Piss off”. So I did, after kicking the dog and strangling the lady.
      When I’m running my difficulties with fellow humans are usually more subtle. Recently I’ve become more aware of a new problem, which hardly seems possible, after so many years of running. In the beginning, it was straightforward. Running became a routine, like shaving. Having decided that I would not be bearded, I did not have to go through the mental anguish every morning of deciding whether or not to shave. Similarly, having decided to take up running, I didn’t need to decide whether or not to go to the gym at 1 o’clock. Unless there was some insurmountable obstacle, such as a crucial meeting, I would be there. And so it went on, for month after month. If I met anyone while I was running, it was manifest to them what I was doing: I was on my middle-of-the-day run. Runner or not, known to me or not, they would have expected no more than a waved ‘hi’ from me.

flood Right: On Tuesday I saw my first sand-martins of the year. Their return to the Lune valley in April is always welcome because their whirling, twittering flight over the river is characteristic of the summer months. They come to nest in the tunnels they build into the steep river banks. Unfortunately, the Tuesday sand-martins had mistimed their return. The Lune was in flood. All their nests were underwater. The sand-martins, lots of them, were swooping over the turbulent river, puzzled. The river had subsided by Wednesday but no doubt their nests were somewhat soggy. The photograph shows the path to the Waterworks Bridge. The river is normally several metres lower in its bed to the right.

      When I began running around home it was a little different. I would meet local people, perhaps people I had not seen for a while, and people who, if I were out walking with Ruth, we would perhaps stop and chat with. Now I was running past, with a ‘hi’ but no time for a ‘how are you?’. Maybe I looked sufficiently committed to my running that no offence was taken. Over the years, I expect that they have all got used to me running by. I am as familiar a sight running along in my shorts as is the postman delivering letters.
      Today, things have changed. For one thing, I don’t have a routine. I want to decide for myself every day whether and when and where to run. I think I’m a rational person, capable of reaching decisions. If I decide for myself, every time that I go for a run, then I know that I am going because I want to, and not because I am set in some robotic routine. And when, some days, I decide not to run then I accept that to be a rational decision too.
      Making the decision is, for me, part of the process of running. It’s not something to get worked up about. I take into account what else there is to do during the day, what the weather forecast is, how energetic I feel, and so on. I then conclude that, say, I will run to the windmills at 12 o’clock. Even then, I feel free to change my mind, if, say, a blizzard starts blowing. In this way, I feel in control of my running, such as it is, rather than a slave to it.
      Also, my running is more casual. I am not training for anything. I am no longer able to speed past people. I am running slow enough that it is not unreasonable to expect me to stop for a chat (although I am not one for chatting and I know that if I stopped then I might have difficulty starting again). I probably look like I could do with a breather. So sometimes I stop but usually I continue with the ‘hi’ that people have become accustomed to.
      My new problem arises from the fact that the people I meet have changed. Hardly any of my contemporaries has been unaffected by the passage of time. They present a sad catalogue of illnesses and accidents. Some use walking-sticks; some are in wheel-chairs; some are too unwell to venture far. For some, the most exercise they can seek is a 50 yards struggle to a bench for a sit down. It is awkward to run past old acquaintances in such straits. It seems impolite not to stop and ask how they are. I doubt, however, that they want to discuss their problems with me, standing there in my running shorts. If I run by, or if I stop and then run off, it must seem to them that I am flaunting my fitness, although, heaven knows, I don’t feel that I have an abundance of it myself. I am sure that, if I were in their position, I would resent the unfairness of it all.
      It isn’t only walkers that cause me such angst. One day last summer, on the old railway line, I began to catch up a burly jogger ahead. My overtaking etiquette is to only do so if I am running much faster than the other runner, so that I can sail by with a brief ‘hi’. If I am only slightly faster then I risk being trapped like those motorway lorries that can’t quite complete the manoeuvre. I may then have to run alongside and even say more than ‘hi’, as though I were trying to strike up a friendship. This I try to avoid, especially if the other runner is a woman.
      On this occasion, there was no problem, as he was so slow, but as I ran by I heard a “Hi, John”. I slowed down and recognised him as one of those ‘Olympians’ I mentioned in Week 1, one of the original university running group. He gasped “Don’t run much now”. This was apparent but what could I say? It was sad to see but at least he was still trying to run. I found a side-path as soon as it was polite to do so.
      What can I do about this? Maybe I could avoid running where my contemporaries are likely to be, such as within a short distance of a car park. But why should I? It’s not my fault that they are much less fit than they were. For all I know, I may join them soon enough.
      The trouble is, I don’t like to dwell on our fragility and mortality. In the past when anyone asked “Have you heard about ...?” then I would anticipate good news: got a new job, moved, had twins, won the lottery, or whatever. Nowadays, it is invariably bad news: needs a knee operation, has cancer, fell and broke her hip, and so on. I can’t cope with it all. It is too depressing to think about. Perhaps I run to preserve the illusion that it won’t happen to me. There is, I admit, an escapist, enjoy-it-while-you-can element to my running.
      Fitness is relative. It is unreasonable, I know, but I feel a little dissatisfied to have reached a plateau with my running. I can comfortably run 5 miles or so 5 days a week. It fits into life almost without being noticed. I say “I’m just going for a run” much as I do “I’m just walking to the shop”. I don’t know if I could run 40 or 50 miles a week but I know that I don’t need to. When I think of other people’s problems it seems greedy to even contemplate it.
      I suppose I shouldn’t worry about all this too much. At least people don’t bite a lump out of my thigh. By the way, I didn’t really strangle that lady. Or kick her dog. But I will next time.
25/285

15.  Home Run
April 16th 2011

On Monday I had my first tip-out of the year. When Ruth drives off somewhere I sometimes jump into the car in order to be tipped out en route and left to run back home. I’m fond of tip-outs for several reasons. If a run has to finish at home (as almost all do nowadays), they increase the area within which I can run. Normally I run from and back to home. So, if I can run 6 miles then I’m limited to a circle of 3-mile radius. A tip-out widens this to a 6-mile radius, thereby quadrupling my running area.
      I was tipped out in the Quernmore valley 3 miles the other side of the Cragg (mentioned in Week 12). I had to run back up the Cragg, over it and down to home. Years ago I only ever used to run up to the Cragg from home in order to continue into Quernmore, but that is too far for me now.

cragg Left: Approaching the top of the Cragg from the other side.

      A tip-out is an implicit sign that I have confidence in my fitness. When I run from home I know that if I don’t feel as good as I hoped then I can just shorten the run (and, weak-willed person that I am, I often do). When I have a tip-out there is no choice: I have got to get home somehow. If I didn’t think I could manage it, I wouldn’t volunteer for the tip-out. Also, a tip-out involves Ruth in my running. Running is inherently an insular activity but having a tip-out and talking about it later makes it more of a joint activity. Another reason for liking tip-outs is that I have always preferred runs from A to B to runs from A back to A. It adds some, perhaps illusory, point to the exercise: I have transported myself somewhere entirely by my own effort.
      When I want to distinguish between the two, I’ll call A-A runs ‘loop-runs’ or ‘loops’ and A-B runs ‘line-runs’ or ‘lines’ (these lines are, of course, not straight). I might use the expressions ‘loop-running’ and ‘line-running’ (well, it’s not as ridiculous as line-dancing, is it?)
      All the great historical runs were line-runs. The legendary first marathon was run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens (about 26 miles) to warn of approaching Persian ships, Pheidippides dropping dead at the end of it, thereby providing a role model for subsequent marathon runners (although it is now doubted that it happened exactly as the legend says).
      And ... actually, I can’t think of any other historical runs right now but if I could I’m sure they’d be line-runs.
      The Preston-to-Morecambe Marathon was, obviously, a line-run. The Huddersfield and Barnsley Marathons were loop-runs. Most road-races are loop-runs, to avoid the problem of transporting runners or their belongings from one end to the other. Subjectively, it is a much more satisfying achievement to run somewhere, although some may doubt that the attractions of Morecambe warrant running to it. Preston to Morecambe certainly looks an impressive distance on the map but from Barnsley to, er, somewhere, and, er, back to Barnsley doesn’t sound such a big deal. I actually have no idea where the Barnsley Marathon route took us.
      Sometimes a line-run can be of practical use. We can, for example, abandon the car on the other side of the moor for a walk home and I will run back later to retrieve it. Or Ruth can take the car to a rehearsal, leaving me to run there later for the concert. Or I can take the car to the garage, leave it there, run home and then back to the garage. In these ways, my running is not always rather pointless loops from the house. Sometimes, it plays a useful role in our day-to-day life. Tip-outs, however, don’t normally have a practical purpose, other than to enable me to run through regions otherwise out of reach.
      Perhaps my favourite tip-out is one from the other side of the River Lune that provides me with a potted history of the region as well as exercise. After being tipped out on Bottomdale Road, I run south behind Beaumont Grange along Green Lane, an ancient track that was one of the main routes into Lancaster from the north. Nobody seems to use it now, apart from me. The Jacobites would have come along this track during their 1715 raid of Lancaster. Like me, they would see Lancaster Castle ahead of them, across the river. The old castle, built on the site of a Roman camp, was left relatively unscathed by the Jacobites, and appears today much as it would have then.
      At the bottom of Green Lane, I meet Lancaster Canal and run over the magnificent aqueduct over the Lune built in 1797. The canal was constructed to help get goods into and out of Lancaster, avoiding the Lune, which was too shallow to cope with the volume of trade during the golden period of the port of Lancaster. Dropping down by the aqueduct I join the so-called Millennium Park. This runs along the route of the old railway line that linked Lancaster with Leeds from 1849 to 1966. The railways, of course, made canals obsolete for the transport of goods. This particular branch of the railway was in its turn rendered obsolete by the growth of the road system, which I can appreciate as I run next under the fine single-span bridge of the M6 motorway, the noise and activity of the motorway above contrasting with the serenity of the old canal.
      Next, I pass Halton, the site of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle, one of a string of such castles up the Lune valley. At one time, Halton, rather than Lancaster, was the administrative centre of the region. On the north bank is the site of the old Halton Mills, now a symbol of modern problems, with its new ‘townhouses’, abandoned half-built because of the recession, and its ‘eco-houses’, planned but not yet built at all. So, there’s 2000 years of history to reflect upon as I run along.
      Ah, I’ve thought of another great historical run, which was indeed a line-run: the famous race between the tortoise and the hare, reported by the sports correspondent Aesop over 2500 years ago. Many runners have taken inspiration from this race, with its message that slow and steady will win in the end (although that has never been my experience). The message I take from the race, however, is: do not have a nap in the middle of a race. This is something I carefully refrained from doing, although I was tempted on occasions.
      Nowadays, as my running is no longer in races, the mid-run nap would be perfectly acceptable. Some days I am so lacking in energy that I feel that I could easily curl up into the hedgerow and have a doze. And why not? Well, if I overslept when on a tip-out run and was not back when Ruth returned home, she might be perplexed.
28/313

16.  Out Run
April 23rd 2011

roeburndale Right: Roeburndale, looking north, with Whernside to the right.

I don’t have to be driven somewhere for a run (as last week): I can drive myself. I normally only do this if I feel fit enough to justify it but after several months of running around home, I fancied a change. So on Wednesday I drove to the next valley east, Roeburndale. I ran south along the old track (the old salt road) for 45 minutes, and then turned and ran back. The distance did not matter. I was really there to enjoy the scenery.
      On the way up the dale, there are views of the wild, remote, empty expanses of upper Roeburndale. On the way back, the Lake District hills and the Three Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales (Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent) are arrayed ahead. The ancient track was used to transport salt and other commodities over the Bowland hills. In its southern part it merges with the Roman road that ran between Ribchester and Burrow. On Wednesday, there were only sheep, skylarks, grouse and lapwing - and me. It was remote enough for me to run with my top off, as I needed to, it being the hottest day of the year so far.
      This kind of run is a legacy of a decision I made, or, rather, of a conclusion I reached, in 1988. I realised then, after ten years of running around the lanes near the university and home, that my running had acquired a new purpose. I had come to appreciate that I lived within some of the most attractive landscapes of England. A circle of forty miles radius, centred on my home, encloses all of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks, renowned for their rugged grandeur and limestone scenery. It also includes the extensive peat moors of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with further hills of the Lancashire Pennines, such as Pendle. To the north it includes the rounded hills of the Howgills and the northern Pennines of Cumbria, such as Mallerstang. All this lay on my doorstep - or within one hour of it.
      So one of the purposes of my running became to explore this region. I kept fit by running around locally but no longer with the intention to race along roads with many others. I would, from time to time, take off to run alone, as the whim took me, around the nearby hills and dales. If need be, I could manage this within a morning or afternoon - one hour there, two hour run, one hour back.
      In January 1988 I started to keep a record of these outings. It was not a ‘running log’ as recommended for serious runners. It did not include distances or times - they were irrelevant. It was not a pre-marathon training record, like my previous records. It was simply a note of where I ran on my outings and of anything interesting encountered on the way. I imagined that I might like to read the notes in my dotage when no longer able to run, a state that I have nearly reached.

dow crag Left: Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man. On September 9th 1988 I ran from the bottom right corner, to the basin (wherein lies Goats Water) between the two. Then up the Old Man, north to Brim Fell, and back behind Dow Crag, returning on the Walna Scar track. On May 15th 2005 I ran roughly the other way round, up Dow Crag to Brim Fell and back over the Old Man.

      In 1988 I made notes of 22 outings, distributed around the region as follows: 7 in the Lake District (Longsleddale, Scandale, High Street, Nan Bield Pass, Winster, Coniston Old Man, Swindale); 5 in the Forest of Bowland (River Dunsop, Salter Fell, Fair Snape, Roeburndale, Burn Moor); 4 in the Yorkshire Dales (Ingleborough, Baugh Fell, Crummockdale, Scales Moor); 2 in the Howgills (Cautley Spout, Bowderdale); 4 elsewhere in the region (Bretherdale, Barbondale, Hutton Roof, Upper Eden valley). How I wish I could manage similar now! But I am grateful to have managed it then.
      I am not sure what to call these outings. They were not, of course, fell-races (as I described in Week 11). I always ran alone and while I did run energetically I was in no hurry to get anywhere particular. I was allowed to stop whenever I wanted, to look at anything interesting or just to admire the scenery. When I reached the top of a hill there was no compulsion to dash straight back down again. On the contrary, once up there, I’d hope to be able to run about on ‘top of the world’ for some time.
      ‘Fell-running’ is a possible description but to most people a ‘fell’ is a rugged mountain of the Lakeland type and fell-running involves scrambling up and down such mountains. There was some of that but I much preferred running along the ridges (High Street, the Helvellyn ridge, and so on) to running up and down the slopes.
      Then I came to prefer the rather more gentle contours of the Dales and Howgills to the craggy Lake District fells. Maybe ‘hill-running’ is a better term - but then my outings did not necessarily involve running up and down hills. I was quite content to explore dales, valleys, lakes, indeed anything on the map that looked promising. If the clouds are low or the winds are high, then a low-level run is obviously to be preferred. I always had half-a-dozen potential routes of various sorts ready to select from.
      Americans use the term ‘trail-running’ for off-road running. But I was not averse to some road running. In fact, I liked to start with a mile or two on the road to loosen up and then to end with a mile or two on the road when the legs were tiring. I was not following a ‘trail’, although I had no objection to doing so if it helped. Part of the aim was to run away from any sort of trail in order to reach places normally inaccessible. I will admit now that I often trespassed (this was before the access land legislation of 2004).
      I suppose I could just continue to call them ‘outings’. But that suggests trips to the sea-side and the like. Perhaps ‘run-outings’, or ‘run-outs’, for short, is better. But that’s the wrong way round. I didn’t run to get out: I went out to run. So, I’ll settle on ‘out-runs’.
      From 1988, then, a main purpose of my running became to stay fit enough to be able to go on out-runs, or to go out-running, in order to explore the region near where I live. Since then, I have made notes of 131 out-runs. I’m not sure if my Roeburndale run should count as an out-run. It was less exploratory than my out-runs used to be. But, heck, I can lower my standards now. Nobody is counting, except me. So, that’s 132, then.
31/344

17.  Running Rife
April 30th 2011

This diary is supposed to be focussed upon running but from time to time it becomes obvious that my running only plays second fiddle to the rest of my life. This week it has been pushed right out of the orchestra. During the Easter holiday Martin and Sarah said that they had decided to get married. In the circumstances my running didn’t seem so important. I have only run a little this week and I haven’t given it my full attention. There isn’t much to say about it, so I will resort to my running of the distant past.

Waterworks Bridge Left: Waterworks Bridge below Aughton Woods.

      I have run less this week but I notice that others are running more, encouraged out by the fine spring weather. I find it strange that the majority of casual runners go for such uninspiring runs. I rarely see runners on the hilly roads up to the moor or even by the riverside. Most of them run along the old railway track, because, I suppose, it is flat and simple (just run along it, turn and run back). It is as though they have been told that running should be a dull activity, so they find the dullest run that they can. If they ran just a few yards off the railway track, down by the river, they might see a kingfisher, as I saw the other day. Or a sand-martin (certainly), lapwing (probably), plover (possibly), oystercatcher (perhaps) or heron (maybe). Or salmon leaping. They would, at least, have a better view, along the Lune valley.
      In general, though, I am glad to see other runners about because it makes my own running seem less in need of explanation. Nowadays there is nothing remarkable about the sight of runners, especially in fine weather. When I started running in 1978 it was thought to be a rather peculiar activity. The transformation of running from being a commitment of dedicated athletes to a pastime that almost everybody could take up occurred in the early 1980s in the UK (and somewhat earlier in the US). As it happens, it almost coincided with my own transition from serious to less-serious running.
      I ran one marathon in 1982 (the Norfolk Marathon) and one in 1983 (the Windermere Marathon). The former was a line-run, from Kelling to Norwich; the latter a loop-run, around Lake Windermere. Unlike the three earlier marathons, they were not organised by running clubs but by charitable agencies that had noticed the increasing numbers of runners and realised that they were a source of income for their worthy causes. The Norfolk Marathon was run in aid of the Kelling Hospital Appeal and the Windermere Marathon was organised by the Rotary Club.
      The latter marathon was completed by 1407 runners, about ten times more than for the Preston and Huddersfield Marathons. The different nature of the runners is indicated by the fact that only 40% of them finished within 3:30, compared to 88% and 84% for the Preston and Huddersfield Marathons.
      In keeping with their less serious character, the races were only a component of the gala events of the day, which is part of the reason for running them: it gives the rest of the family something to do while runners are occupied. The Norfolk Marathon was my home county marathon and could be combined with visits to relatives. The race was through country that I knew as a boy. Not coincidentally, I knew the course would be flat, providing the opportunity for a fast time. Unfortunately, this opportunity was not realised because a gale blew directly into our faces as we ran from Kelling to Norwich. Experienced runners have mastered the skill of spitting on the run, as I discovered as I ran behind some of them, as was my custom, to find the gale showering me with phlegm.

norfolk marathon Right: The end of the 1982 Norfolk Marathon, in the courtyard of Norwich Cathedral.

      The Norfolk event was unusual in having both a marathon and a half-marathon, obviously with the aim of raising more money. We all started off together but at my halfway point the half-marathon runners peeled off to their finish. There was no way of knowing until they did so who was in which race. Maybe some runners aborted the marathon because of the gale. I suddenly found myself with only a handful of runners ahead and duly finished 4th in 2:35.
      I was probably fitter for this marathon than for any other and perhaps, without the gale, I could have run my fastest time. But I realised that some things (such as the weather) are beyond my control and that it isn’t sensible to set out hoping for a PB.
      I entered the Windermere Marathon because it had become our local marathon (the Preston Marathon would be too dangerous for such multitudes of runners and, in any case, would not appeal to the new breed of runner). It was undoubtedly the most pleasant marathon that I have run, if any marathon can be considered pleasant, with the autumn colours and the changing panoramas across the lake. It was, however, rather too undulating for really fast times, although that mattered little. I came 7th, also in 2:35.
      The character of marathon running had changed. No longer did only serious club runners run the races. They were now far outnumbered by newcomers most of whom had no intention of joining a running club. The new runners wanted to tackle what was considered to be the ultimate running challenge, in a noncompetitive fashion, possibly raising money for charity along the way.
      Human nature being what it is, serious club runners began to lose interest in racing marathons, once their reputation as a superhuman elite was shattered by the demonstration that almost anyone could run a marathon if they put their mind to it. The newcomers were so fixated upon the marathon that, to begin with, it seemed hardly to occur to them to run anything else. I suppose a 10-mile race doesn’t provide the same sense of bravado and achievement - and is less impressive to potential sponsors.
      As a serious club runner myself by that stage, I too began to lose interest in marathons. Serious runners had, of course, always run races of different lengths - and could continue to do so without much interference from the newcomers. I began to run more such races myself, not least because they are less disruptive of family life. Training for, say, 10-mile races, could be fitted into a relatively normal lifestyle. With, at that time, two young children (Martin and Pamela), it was hard to find the time for the hours of running necessary for marathon training. I didn’t want to find it, anyway: the children were more interesting and important. But even second fiddlers can be serious, at least about their running.
19/363

18.  Running Gear
May 7th 2011

On Friday I took part in an emotional ceremony. I bought my last pair of running shoes. I always assume nowadays that they will be my last pair, anyway. The shop assistants probably think that I am beyond my last pair, although they are too polite to say so.
      The young woman who came to help me immediately scuttled off for help herself when I caused trouble by asking a question. The young man who returned gave me a thorough eulogy of the virtues of the modern running shoe as though it were the newest electronic gadgetry the like of which an old duffer could never have seen before and certainly could not comprehend. I stalled him briefly by commenting that some of the New Balance shoes, which for the last thirty years had sold themselves as British-made, were now made in Vietnam, which he had not noticed. He did, however, stumble upon my Achilles heel when, towards the end of his peroration, he emphasised the importance of cushioning when running down steep roads. I am nursing a slightly sore calf from running down from the Cragg (as I had predicted might happen in Week 12) but I didn’t admit that to him.
      The need for running shoes has been increasingly questioned recently. The debate seems to boil down to an argument about whether the human foot has evolved to be suited for running in the 21st century. The answer depends to some extent on the kind of running you have in mind. Clearly, it would be remarkably fortuitous if the foot was ideally suited for running on the kinds of surface that big city marathons use, that is, hard roads.
      The answer also depends on your view of the conditions under which the human foot did evolve. If, as some believe, the foot evolved while humans were running long distances hunting down animals then perhaps it is ideal for running far over rough ground. If it evolved for hunting over short distances or for quick escape from predators then perhaps it is more attuned to sprinting. These are questions for anthropologists to answer, but they don’t seem to be able to answer them at the moment.
      If I thought my feet were ideal for the running that I do nowadays then, rationally, I should run in my feet, that is, barefoot. However, there are irrational considerations. I already feel self-conscious, as a 65-year-old running about showing off my legs. I don’t want the neighbours to think me completely odd, as they would if I ran along the road barefoot.
      There is a fashion, particularly in the United States, for running barefoot. We are biassed towards hoping that ‘nature is best’. The long-distance runners of the Mexican canyons run barefoot, or nearly so. In the western world, we picture the best runners today, who are usually African, running about barefoot as children. And yet none of them compete barefoot. The well-known barefoot champions of the past, Zola Budd and Abebe Bikila, hardly support the case. The former took to wearing shoes to protect herself from injuries. The latter only ran barefoot in the 1960 Olympics marathon because, as a late addition to the team, there were no shoes to fit him. He wore shoes when he won the 1964 marathon.
      If, however, I thought that my feet were not ideal then I would hope that running shoes would help. It is, after all, the case that many components of our bodies have evolved inadequately for modern life. For example, our eyes seem unable to cope with the amount of reading we do nowadays. I see nothing wrong, in principle, therefore with hoping that my shoes will offer protection, support and correction for any foot inadequacies.
      Runners run differently with and without running shoes [1]. With shoes, runners tend to strike the ground with the heel. Without shoes, they tend to strike more midfoot or forefoot. As a result, barefoot runners are not subjected to as high an impact force. The inference that some draw from this is that running shoes are more likely, not less likely, to cause injuries. This is, of course, a controversial conclusion, disputed by shoe manufacturers who have vested commercial interests in promoting new shoes with extra features intended to help the runner.
      Because barefoot running involves a different style to running with shoes, it is not easy to switch from one to the other, even if one were convinced by the argument. Myself, I have always run in running shoes. I prefer light shoes with thin soles, through which I can ‘feel’ the ground, which I understand is one of the objectives of barefoot running, that is, to strengthen foot muscles rather than to cause them to weaken through lack of use. In fact, most barefoot advocates do not themselves run barefoot. They run with ‘minimalist shoes’ (mimicking the sandals of the Mexican runners) that are supposed to correspond to barefoot running.
      I imagine that I would quite like the subjective feeling of being more naturally connected with the environment through running barefoot, as I do at the moment only on rare runs on a beach. However, where I usually run there are stones, rocks, thistles and nettles that would make me more aware of the environment than I would wish. It would take a hardy sole to run barefoot where I went to out-run on Tuesday.

wolfhole crag Right: The trig point on Wolfhole Crag (at 527 metres) in the Forest of Bowland, with millstone grit boulders and heather. (This photograph was taken on an earlier occasion: I wouldn’t want you to think that I ignored the ‘moor closed’ signs.) This moor is home to England’s largest inland colony of lesser black-backed gulls. I was looking forward to running amidst the cacophony of 25,000 nesting gulls. I would not have felt guilty at disturbing them, as I’m sure the land-owners would prefer grouse to nest instead and, in addition, all these gulls pollute Lancaster’s water supply.

      I headed for the Forest of Bowland, aiming to run from Tower Lodge, up by Tarnbrook Wyre to the watershed, along the ridge to Wolfhole Crag, and back across Brennand Fell. This is not a route to tackle after wet weather but I anticipated that the hottest April ever recorded, with strong winds and very little rain, would have dried out the peat bogs nicely. Unfortunately, they were too dry: the moor was closed because of ‘extreme fire risk’. The local news has been reporting extensive fires on the moors just south and I was foolish not to foresee this closure.
      But not to worry: I ran along the road, fairly empty of traffic, through the Trough of Bowland as far as Dunsop Bridge and back (about 90 minutes). Dunsop Bridge claims to be the centre of gravity of Britain, which does perhaps add a point of interest to the run. In any case, it was a very pleasant run, for Bowland changes little over the decades. The old boundary stone, Sykes Farm, the picnic spot at Langden Brook, Smelt Mill Cottages (now a Mountain Rescue centre) and Dunsop Bridge itself were all much as I remembered them.
      The real Bowland, however, is away from the road. It is up on the many acres of wilderness, millstone grit, peat bogs, crags and cloughs, with moor birds such as curlew, lapwing, grouse and especially hen harrier, for which it is England’s best breeding area. Perhaps the closure of the moor was for the best. My old running shoes are beginning to disintegrate as it is, rotting away after many miles in the winter mud. The millstone grit and tough heather might have made them even more minimalist than they have already become.

[1].  Lieberman, Daniel et al (2010), Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners, Nature, 463, 531-535.
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19.  On the Run
May 14th 2011

Sometimes I just sit still for 90 minutes, with a break in the middle, doing absolutely nothing. Nobody has ever asked me “What on earth do you think about all that time?”. Instead I’m asked, for example, “What did you think of the Sibelius?” because it is assumed that I am thinking about the music that is being played for me.
      Long-distance runners are plagued by people asking “What on earth do you think about all that time?”. At least that is the impression you get from those who write about running, who labour at length to provide an answer. I suspect that they are just puzzled themselves, for nobody has ever asked me that question. I will answer it anyway: I think about running. If I spend a lot of time on anything then it seems sensible to me to think about it.
      I differ from Murakami in this respect. He says (p17) “... as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning. I just run. I run in a void”. I don’t know how he manages that. My mind doesn’t have an off switch. Whether I like it or not, it thinks all the time, if not as profoundly as Murakami’s. Since it insists on thinking, I’d rather that it thinks about something relevant. Even if I could switch off my mind I’m not sure why I should. Murakami himself emphasises the importance of ‘focus’ - and yet he chooses not to focus at all on running when actually engaged in the activity of it. If I wished to achieve a trance-like void, there is surely a less arduous way to do so.
      Perhaps I need to explain what there is to think about with running. There is an inner and outer aspect to it. Before I set off on a run I have an expectation of what sort of run it will be. This depends on various things, such as how I feel generally, how much running I’ve done recently, the weather conditions, what else I plan for the rest of the day, and so on. As I run I monitor how I’m running compared to my expectations. I don’t, of course, monitor in an overt, medical sense. It’s just a general awareness of how I’m running.
      I always run with a watch. Usually I ignore it because I know that it will only confirm what my body tells me (that I am too slow). Sometimes, however, it helps to add some precision to the monitoring process. I know, for example, that on an average day it takes me 13 minutes to reach the Crook o’ Lune along the old railway line. If I’m expecting a fast-ish run but it takes me 14 minutes then I know that I’m more sluggish than I anticipated. So, to go on to Halton Bridge, normally another 11 minutes, might take 12, that is, 26 minutes in total. This kind of minor mental arithmetic as I go along helps me to keep focussed on the running.
      Sometimes, especially when I am trying to get fit again, I time myself in order to make a note of how slowly I am running. This is in the hope that when I run the same route two weeks later I can be encouraged by the evidence that I have somehow become a minute or so faster.
      I try not to focus on any specific anticipated problem because I have learned that this may exacerbate it, by causing unnatural running. It’s better, I find, to try to forget it so that it merges with all the other aches and niggles that emerge. If it doesn’t then it is better to abort the run and jog gently back.
      In general - and this may be Murakami’s point - anything becomes more of a struggle if you think about the struggle. If you think only of the pain when in the dentist’s chair it will be more painful. If you think your breathing is laboured while running then it will become more laboured. If, somehow, you can focus on something else then a mile or two can pass without you even being aware of it. I suppose it depends on whether you think of running fundamentally as a penance or a pleasure. Personally, I don’t want miles to pass without me being aware of it.
      The outer aspect concerns my focus on the surroundings as I run. I always set off with some expectations about what I might see and hear. On the run over Halton Bridge I will want to see the progress, if any, on the eco-houses that are planned. If I run up to the moor in February I will listen out for the first skylarks of the year and glance in the ditches for the first frog-spawn (they are hardy frogs up there). If I run around the windmills I will be sure to appreciate the long-distance views of the Forest of Bowland, the Yorkshire Dales and over Morecambe Bay to the Lake District. And so on - and, of course, I will try to stay alert for anything unexpected en route. In this way I am always reminding myself how privileged I am to be able to run in such a region.
      bluebells As it happens, I have not managed a 90-minute run this week, unlike a couple of previous weeks. It is good to know that I am capable of it but ... I hesitate to regale you with a litany of my woes but I cannot give the full and fair picture of my running that you deserve without mentioning that I have been somewhat discommoded this week by bruises gained by falling in the beck. After a dry spell, as we’ve had, I work on the bank of the beck at the bottom of our garden to protect it against erosion during a very wet spell, as we will surely have. Anyhow, somehow, I fell in. Afterwards, if I tried to run I would wince at every step. I kept telling myself that “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional” but I kept answering back “pain is optional; running is not compulsory - walk instead”.

Right: Bluebells in Aughton Woods.

      Alas and alack: I am bereft, without running. The lump on my head has subsided but a sharp pain in the side of the chest remains. I don’t think it’s a cracked rib but even if it were there’s nothing I can do about it. So I have taken a few gentle strolls. One day I went across to the other side of the River Lune in order to see the spectacular displays of bluebells in Aughton Woods. I think it was a week or two late to see them at their very best but on this walk I was pleased to see another sure sign of the change of season, the return of another of the species that I keep my eye out for: the angler. I spotted one standing in the river below the woods.
      This strange species disappears over the winter. It discards its drab browny-green outer surface and semi-hibernates. Its reappearance in the spring and its disappearance in the autumn is, by some mechanism unknown to science, remarkably punctual, always occurring within a day or two of the same date each year.
      Anglers stand for hours on the river bank with a stick to dangle a wire in the water. Sometimes they stand for hours right in the river, not like a heron gracefully on a rock but half (or more) submerged in the water. Every so often they twirl the stick above their head. This is believed to be an attempt to mesmerise fish so that they may be scooped from the water. However, in thirty years of careful observation I have never seen an angler on the Lune entrap a fish in this way or indeed in any other way.
      Some experts believe the stick-twirling to be part of a mating ritual. If it is then it is sadly unsuccessful for the simple reason that there are no female anglers. As a consequence, there are no young anglers. This presents a conundrum for biologists. My own theory is that the angler is not a species in itself but merely a stage in the life cycle of some other species, like a chrysalis or a maggot, perhaps.
      Anglers are silent and solitary. They have no song or alarm call (unless they fall in the river). They communicate solely with their arms, which they stretch ahead and gradually widen. An angler’s territory is claimed afresh each day but once claimed it is never breached by other anglers. The range of their territory is determined by the size of their stick.
      I am fond of anglers because their peculiar behaviour makes my own seem relatively rational. The one I spotted was still there, in exactly the same position, when I walked back some 45 minutes later. What on earth does an angler think about while standing in the river for hours on end?
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20.  Can I Just Run Over That Again?
May 21st 2011

Our outing on Saturday to the Howgills, where we went so that Ruth could rehearse for and then play in the Ravenstonedale Prom, had a certain poignancy. On the day of the Prom last year (which was in July) I had my longest run of recent years: this year I could only go for a walk.
      Last year’s run was a ‘tip-out-run’, which is a combination, naturally, of a ‘tip-out’ (Week 15) and an ‘out-run’ (Week 16). In a normal tip-out I am left to run back home from wherever I am tipped out. In a tip-out-run I have to run, usually over some mountains, to an agreed rendez-vous point, to meet up again with car and Ruth. These tip-out-runs don’t happen often because they take careful planning and require a high level of fitness on my part. When they do, however, they provide memorable runs that cannot be tackled in any other way.
      One tip-out-run that I recall well (on 24th July 1990, according to my records) was along the High Street ridge. I was tipped out at the Kirkstone Inn, from where I ran over Stony Cove Pike and Thornthwaite Crag to High Street, with a detour out to Kidsty Pike for the view, and then along the ridge - excellent running all the way - over Rampsgill Head, High Raise, Wether Hill, Loadpot Hill, Arthur’s Pike, and down to Pooley Bridge, where I was met by Ruth and Pamela walking up the track. They had had a leisurely drive alongside Ullswater. It was a hot, sunny day, with good views in all directions, but between Rampsgill Head and Pooley Bridge I did not see another person. That’s eight miles or so of one of the most scenic ridges in England all to myself, which is worth running for!
      Last year I was tipped out in Sedbergh to run over the Howgills to Ravenstonedale. When I’m running up hills I try to keep running as long as I can, albeit slowly. Once, as a challenge to myself, I ran non-stop to the top of Whernside, the highest peak of the Yorkshire Dales. If the intention is to keep on running then it is wise to tackle the longest, gentlest ascent rather than a direct frontal assault. So, I began in Kingsdale by Raven Ray, ran along the track to Twisleton Hall, and then along the West Fell ridge, climbing 480m without a pause.

winder Left: Winder, Arant Haw and Calders, the ridge along which I ran.

      Unfortunately, on the slopes of Winder, the hill behind Sedbergh, I soon found that I was not able to run up it. The first few yards were too steep. I feared that I might have been over-ambitious in aiming to run to Ravenstonedale, 10 miles away in a direct line (not that a direct line is possible). Eventually, I managed a slow trot skirting below Winder, to join the broad and, eventually, flattish, track that passes Arant Haw and on to Calders.
      I had to walk again up the slopes of Calders, where I met a couple of walkers on their way down. “That is The Calf, isn’t it?” they asked, waving to Calders. They clearly thought, or hoped, that they had conquered the highest point of the Howgills (which is The Calf) and were disappointed when I said “No, The Calf is another mile further on. You can see its trig point from the top there (Calders)”. They reluctantly turned to re-climb Calders.
      When I reached The Calf, I looked back and I could see them still at Calders, gesticulating with other walkers. I gave them a wave but I doubt that they ever believed that they were not at The Calf (it is only two metres higher than Calders). At the trig point a small group of walkers was already gathered. Normally I pause at the highest point to have a good look around and perhaps have a brief word with anyone else there. But this group seemed to find me a subject of amusement. Maybe the sight of an old guy puffing up to the trig point is amusing to walkers. Maybe they were taking bets on whether I was about to peg out. Maybe I imagined it.

bowderdale Right: Bowderdale in the Howgills, showing the eastern ridge that I ran along. Randygill Top is the rounded peak (all peaks are rounded in the Howgills!) to the right, with part of Yarlside to its right. The slope of Yarlside is one of the ones that I could not run up.

      I left them to it and jogged off on the path to Bowderdale Head. From here, I expected to be on my own. The Saturday walkers tackle the path from Winder to the Calf but very few of them walk on the eastern slopes of Bowderdale. I had to, as I was again reduced to walking, on the slopes of Yarlside. Actually, I am sure that even in my prime I would have had to walk up Yarlside. It is too steep and the grassy slopes too uneven to run on.
      After another scramble up Kensgriff left me feeling exhausted, I was relieved that it should be all running, and mainly downhill, from here to Ravenstonedale. I picked up the path below Randygill Top and ran on to Green Bell, where, as I reached the top, I was surprised to meet a party of walkers arriving from the northern slope. I did not linger in the cold wind. On over Knoutberry and Snowfell End and at last I could see Ravenstonedale ahead. After a wash and some food in the van, I was refreshed sufficiently to join the Ravenstonedale Prommers.
      I reached the van some 2 hours 20 minutes after I had been tipped out of it. As I’ve indicated, I cannot honestly say that I ran across the Howgills. There were several walking/scrambling episodes. Even so, I managed the whole distance in reasonable shape, which was not too bad, just a few days before my 65th birthday.
      The probably increasing rarity of such days makes them even more valued and memorable. As with marathons, the run itself is only part of the achievement. It is the knowledge that one is fit enough to contemplate even tackling such a run that gives greater satisfaction. One of the reasons that I continue to try to run is the hope that I may become fit enough to have further days like the traverse of the Howgills.
      Unfortunately, that seems some way away right now. The most frustrating aspect of running as you get older is the body’s decreasing ability to recover. Decades ago, minor problems would evaporate in a day or two but now they seem to linger forever. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned my “slightly sore calf” (no relation to The Calf). I could run for 90 minutes with it so it wasn’t much to worry about.
      I thought that a week’s rest, after my fall in the beck, would do the calf good. In fact, it is worse. How is that possible? It is as though my battle-hardened muscles of two weeks ago, when I was fit, protected their ailing comrade, the sore muscle, but have relaxed during their holiday and are now leaving it to fend for itself, which it is unable to do.
      I am on the horns of a dilemma. If I run to toughen up the relaxed muscles, the calf may be made worse. If I rest the calf, the muscles may become even more relaxed - and the calf may not recover for some time.
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21.  Running the Gauntlet
May 28th 2011

To run or not to run? That is the runner’s question: whether it is better to run - to maintain general fitness at the risk of aggravating a minor injury - or to rest - to sacrifice general fitness in order to allow time for an injury to recover.
      In hindsight the answer ‘to run’ is always a mistake, because we never apply hindsight if it turns out not to be a mistake. The wrong decision here is the main cause of all those injuries mentioned in Week 3. On the other hand, if we rested whenever there was a possibility of making a suspected minor injury worse then we would hardly run at all.
      Whilst I am grappling with this problem, teetering on the tightrope of indecision, let us divert ourselves by turning for inspiration to the London Marathon, the zenith of so many runners’ ambition and achievement. I can postpone it no longer.
      The first London Marathon was in 1981. It is often assumed that the London Marathon caused the great growth in long-distance running in the 1980s. In fact, it was the other way around. Nobody would have gone to the considerable trouble of organising a marathon in London if they weren’t sure that many thousands of people would want to run it. Participation in long-distance road races was already increasing and the New York Marathon, which had started in 1970, had shown the popularity of mass-participation big city marathons.
      The London Marathon instantly became the largest British marathon: indeed, for the general public it was the only marathon. If you said that you’d run a marathon it was assumed to be the London Marathon. It was, and still is, the only British marathon televised live and featured on news broadcasts. Its theme tune became known to everyone as the marathon tune (it’s actually Ron Goodwin’s ‘The Trap’, written to accompany Oliver Reed canoeing down a Canadian river).
      The London Marathon initiated a new style of marathon for Britain, in which members of a vast sea of humanity provide mutual support as they strive towards a communal goal. The sight of such a mass of be-numbered runners proved inspirational to thousands. It showed, according to Chris Brasher, one of the initiators, that “the human race [is] one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible”.
      The new marathon ethos was perfectly symbolised by the two winners of the first race, who came to the finishing line hand-in-hand. Can you imagine the negotiation between the two leaders in the final mile? This gesture has not been repeated in any later marathon but in 1981 it was the taking part, not the winning, that mattered.
      I resisted the London Marathon until 1983. Then we set off for a weekend in London, along with many thousands of others. On the Saturday we joined the throngs registering for the race and getting swept up in the media hype. Early Sunday morning I made my way to Greenwich. The organisers had skilfully fixed the date of the marathon to coincide with the change of the clocks, so the 9.30 start was really 8.30. Despite this, I had ample time to enjoy the exciting facilities provided on Greenwich Park: black coffee stalls (to keep awake), running shoe stalls (bit late for that, I thought), portable loos (well, I hope they were portable) and back to black coffee.
      The London Marathon is neither a loop-run nor a line-run. It is a line-loop-line-run. You run from Greenwich to Tower Bridge, go on a loop through the Isle of Dogs back to Tower Bridge, and then on to Westminster. Its odd shape helps to create the unique experience of running it.
      I did, of course, expect to have plenty of company on this run, unlike the other marathons I’d run. I had not, however, fully anticipated the crowds of people lining the course, who, along with the TV helicopters whirring overhead, created a perpetual din. I was not used to this. Normally, on my runs, I hear only the sounds of nature - the occasional sheep or skylark, perhaps.

littledale Left: Littledale, from the footpath between Cragg Farm and Belhill Farm, is the kind of place where I prefer to run. The grassy ridge on the left, up to High Stephen’s Head, is a fine run; the rocky ridge on the right, up to Ward’s Stone, less so. I can be certain that there will be no other runners and no spectators. (I dare but whisper that I eventually decided to run, not rest, this week. The best that I can say is that I haven’t made matters worse but it feels as though my body is still re-assembling itself into working order.)

      Most people, I suppose, find encouragement from the cheering crowds. Like anyone, I appreciate hearing a friend or relative shouting out a “Looking good - keep it up”, which is all you hear during normal races. But why were complete strangers shouting at me? What were they shouting? How could I focus on my running in all this noise? Why were bands playing outside the pubs? Why were people gathered there, pints in hand, shouting at us? Was it really encouragement they were shouting? Did they know or care anything at all about running marathons or did they just like shouting at runners?
      It may not seem much to put up with but mile after mile of it overwhelmed me. Even the relative peace of the Isle of Dogs was disturbed every few yards by some well-meaning bystander shouting “Keep going - only twelve miles to go”, which is the last thing you want to hear. I stopped. I don’t think it was fatigue from running. I was mentally, rather more than physically, exhausted. There was just too much noise. Too much fuss all round. It was the opposite of what running meant for me: a chance to get out into the peaceful fields.
      I started running again and got back to Tower Bridge and the noisy spectators. I somehow caught a glimpse of Ruth and the children, and tried to indicate that all was not well. As I ran along the Embankment the packed crowds along the footpaths and on the bridges were shouting and waving. A runner ahead of me ran along with his arms aloft as though acknowledging the acclaim of people grateful to him for having won the Third World War single-handedly.
      “Sod it” I thought “I’ve had enough of this”. I stopped and walked over Hungerford Bridge to the finish on Westminster Bridge. A woman shouted at me “You can’t stop now - you’ve only a couple of miles to go”. I offered her my number to finish for me. As I look at the map now I am impressed by the rationality of my decision. It is much easier to reach the finish over Hungerford Bridge than it is to take the long detour along Pall Mall and Birdcage Walk.
      It is, however, very bad form to drop out of a race just because you are fed up with it. It is considered an insult to the organisers and the other runners. Even if, or especially if, you are not running as well as you’d like, you are expected to complete the course. There is a special appreciation for those runners who persevere although in obvious discomfit. For most runners, dropping out is a matter of shame and regret.
      But there we are. I ran 24 miles and then dropped out. Afterwards, it was hard to explain to people why. I wasn’t even injured. I wasn’t that tired. The family, all excited that I’d finished, eventually found me in the finishing area. But I hadn’t finished: I had dropped out.
      Everybody else seemed to relish all the hullabaloo. The cheering continued. Runners streamed over the finishing line, triumphant. It was a little hard to accept that I was the odd one out. I am perplexed that people can say that they like running because it provides an inner serenity - and then they run with thousands of others in a noisy bedlam. How can Murakami achieve his ‘mental void’ while running in the New York Marathon? I concluded that the London Marathon was not for me. I’d leave it for those who like that sort of thing.
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The rest of Fifty Weeks Running will follow in due course.

    © John Self, Drakkar Press